There were 53 seconds left Wednesday night and Charlotte was down to its last gasp against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Nic Batum had the ball, which is generally a good thing for the Hornets. But this time -- in Batum’s first regular-season game after missing the Hornets’ first 12 contests with an elbow injury – it all went wrong. Batum had a shoot-or-pass option with Dwight Howard headed toward the basket.
“When I came off the screen, I tried to give him (Howard) the ball,” Batum said. “He thought I was going to shoot. I thought he was going to cut.”
Instead, Batum threw a bounce pass to no one that was easily gobbled up by the Cavaliers for a turnover, as the Cavaliers went on to a 115-107 victory.
Batum’s first game back of the season was impressive – if you counted only the first half. He had 15 points by halftime on 7-of-9 shooting and was so aggressive early that he scored Charlotte’s first six points – two on a layup and four on a couple of dunks.
But then Batum got tired.
“I didn’t expect to play 32 minutes,” he said later. “I was supposed to play 18-20. I didn’t expect that and I don’t think I was ready for that.”
Coach Steve Clifford has little patience these days for rookie mistakes, though, as the Hornets (5-8) try to right themselves after losing give games in a row. Clifford said after the game that even a fatigued Batum is likely better than a lot of other options he has, and so Batum ended up playing way more than he thought he would.
“For the last five minutes,” Batum said, “I had no more legs.”
Batum said Clifford had told him before the game he would likely play the first six minutes of the first quarter and the final six minutes of the second quarter. With 9:47 to play in the second quarter, though, Clifford had seen enough of rookie Dwayne Bacon and pulled him from the game.
“He called out ‘Nic’ two minutes into the second quarter and I was like ‘Me? Already?’” Batum said with a chuckle.
Batum said he thought it would take him two to three more games to get into “game shape,” and the Hornets need that to happen quickly as they try to break their losing streak Friday night in Chicago or Saturday at home against the L.A. Clippers. Beating LeBron (31 points, eight assists, six rebounds) and Cleveland turned out to be too much to ask Wednesday night for the Hornets, as it usually is. In 50 career games against NBA teams from Charlotte, LeBron is now 44-6 (including playoffs).
Batum’s feel for what Howard likes to do may take awhile. Said Howard afterward of Batum: “For me, I’ve played about one half of basketball with him…. We’re just trying to learn each other - where I like the ball, how he likes to come off screens… It’s a learning experience, the same as it is with me and Kemba (Walker)… Once we get that, we’ll be fine.”
Batum said he and Howard talked for “5-10 minutes” during halftime Wednesday, trying to tweak things a little. It didn’t improve anything immediately, although that may have been due to the fact that Batum got tired. In the second half Wednesday night, Batum scored only one point and went 0-for-6 from the field.
That helped spell doom for the Hornets, who scored 67 points in the first half Wednesday but only 40 in the second. Batum’s re-emergence in the lineup is undoubtedly a good thing for a team that is reeling a little. Walker, Howard and Batum are the three guys who can lead this team out of a cloudy wilderness – and ideally that occurs soon.
It’s only November, but the Hornets need to find a little sunshine.