When you don’t control your own destiny, you often end up with something like the predicament the Charlotte Hornets found themselves in Wednesday night — hoping against hope that a horrid New York Knicks team would somehow provide the assist they desperately needed.
This was like asking a 2-year-old to remember your entire grocery list, and you can guess how it turned out. The Detroit Pistons clinched the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, whipping the New York Knicks by 26 points. Charlotte made that result academic anyway, losing to Orlando, 122-114, despite 43 points from the extraordinary Kemba Walker.
Walker was playing his 616th and perhaps his final game in a Hornets uniform. He checked out with a minute left in the game to a standing ovation — the nicest moment of a nasty night.
“It was special,” Walker said. “I give everything that I have every single night. So for the fans to cheer me on, that was pretty cool.”
The Hornets had needed it to turn out exactly the other way – a Detroit loss, a Charlotte win – to make the playoffs. The two games were played simultaneously, although you wouldn’t have known it inside Spectrum Center unless you were checking your smartphone. The Hornets kept all Knicks-Pistons updates off the main scoreboard, trying to keep the distractions to a minimum.
Didn’t matter. Orlando, safely in the playoffs already and directed by former Hornets coach Steve Clifford, still played hard and well, ending Charlotte’s season at 39-43.
‘I have no idea’
In the past three years, the Hornets have now defined mediocrity, winning 36, 36 and 39 games. Hornets coach James Borrego tried to put the best face on his first season as an NBA head coach after the loss.
“I’m not happy with the defense,” Borrego said. “But where we are as a whole organization – we’re in a healthy place. We have youth. We have growth. We just played 82 meaningful games. Last year, I’m not sure they can say that.”
Charlotte did save its best basketball for the end of the season, going 8-4 over its last 12 games. The problem was the Hornets were 31-39 before that streak started, and that valiant closing stretch wasn’t enough for a team that struggled with consistency and defense all season.
The game may well have been the swan song for Walker, who finished his eighth season with the Hornets — and his sixth losing season. The Hornets’ all-time leading scorer, Walker will have the opportunity to go elsewhere in July. And although the Hornets can pay him more money than anyone else can, they still won’t be able to give him the “win it all” opportunity he has never really had in the pros. The Walker decision will color every other decision the Hornets make in the offseason.
Walker matter-of-factly alternated the phrases “I don’t know,” “I have no idea” and “the time will come” Wednesday after the game when asked about his upcoming free agency. He sounded very much like he truly didn’t know what opportunities he would have — although they are sure to be numerous. “I’ve got a long time to even start thinking about that stuff,” said Walker, who will officially become a free agent July 1.
Resemblance to Panthers
For those who have been in Charlotte for awhile, Wednesday reminded me of the game the Panthers once played against a bad New Orleans team. On the final weekend of the 1999 regular season, Carolina had to win a game against the Saints by 18 points more than Green Bay’s winning margin over Arizona to make the playoffs. This necessitated all sorts of scoreboard watching. Ultimately the Panthers fell short, even though they creamed the Saints – then coached by Mike Ditka and quarterbacked by Jake Delhomme — by a 45-13 score.
Hope for these NBA playoffs was extinguished earlier than on that day – Detroit was up by 14 after the first quarter and by 24 at halftime against a Knicks team that finished the season a staggering 48 games under .500. In the meantime, Bismack Biyombo was dropping pocket passes in the paint for the Hornets and Walker was trying to carry an entire arena on his shoulders one more time.
He couldn’t, despite those 43 points, but by the end it didn’t really matter. The Hornets had an unreliable partner Wednesday night in the Knicks, and that was no one’s fault but their own. Another Charlotte season ended just before 10:30 p.m., three days before the start of the NBA playoffs. The fans filed out quietly, wondering once again when their hometown NBA team would ever field a real winner — and whether that team’s best player was about to walk out the door for good.