Scott Fowler

Kemba Walker and Nic Batum: The Charlotte Hornets’ twin engines

They grew up in different countries. They play different positions. “And one of them is at least a foot shorter than the other one – don’t forget that,” razzes one of their Charlotte Hornets teammates.

But Kemba Walker (the short one from New York) and Nicolas Batum (the tall one from France) have an uncanny on-court chemistry that has pushed the Hornets to a 48-victory regular season and into a winnable first-round playoff series that starts Sunday at 5:30 p.m. in Miami. If the Hornets do it right, their best-of-7 playoff series against the Heat will be the “Kemba and Nic” show, with the rest of their teammates as the supporting cast.

Walker and Batum are the Hornets’ two best players and two best playmakers. After four seasons in which Walker far too often was counted upon to make almost every big decision on offense, Batum has relieved a large part of that burden.

“He’s been perfect for me,” Walker says of Batum, “as well as for what we try to do here. Ever since I’ve been here I’ve been the guy having to make all the plays basically. I haven’t had a lot of much space to do it. And it’s been pretty tough.”

“When I came here,” says Batum, whom the Hornets acquired in a trade last June, “I told the coaches: ‘Just let me help him make plays. Because if you let me do that, Kemba is going to take off. If he gets less pressure, we score more, and he will be more effective than he ever was before.’”

That’s what coach Steve Clifford had in mind all along. He envisioned an offense far more predicated on ball movement and three-pointers this season. Charlotte ended up making 873 threes – seventh-best in the NBA. Not seventh-best this season; seventh-best by any team all-time.

Walker and Batum accounted for 321 of those threes together, or 36.8 percent, but they assisted on many more. Says Clifford: “When you have guys like Nic Batum and Kemba Walker, who willingly move the ball to open teammates when they are your best players, it’s hard for other guys not to (do the same thing). When the best players look guys off and hold the ball, it’s contagious. There’s nothing that ruins a team quicker than that.”

Because Batum and Walker share the ball so willingly, the offense no longer plods. The Hornets have been so effective in part because you don’t know who to guard outside – eight different Charlotte players made at least 50 three-pointers this season. And because other teams’ defenses have been stretched, Walker also has far more room to drive inside and convert on one of his signature acrobatic layups.

It’s no coincidence Walker is averaging career highs in almost every category and has scored 20.9 points per game, including 13 games with 30 or more points. As more evidence of the symmetry between Walker and Batum, let me present this statistic: Each led the Hornets in assists exactly 40 times this season.

Blitzing Kemba

The offense Charlotte brings into this playoff series is far different from the one two years ago, when the then-Bobcats played Miami in the 2014 postseason. Center Al Jefferson – now the Hornets’ sixth man – served as that Charlotte team’s best player. But “Big Al” hurt his foot in the first quarter of the first playoff game and basically played on one leg after that.

Freed from the responsibility of devoting too much defensive attention to Jefferson, Miami devised an unusual but effective strategy that helped lead to a 4-0 playoff sweep.

One of the most basic basketball decisions every team must make on defense is whether to switch defenders on a pick and roll. Switch or stay? Even Roy Williams and Dean Smith sometimes disagreed on the best philosophy.

The Heat, though, didn’t do either one. They just kept both defenders on Walker, every time, no matter where he went. The Hornets then were playing with a shooting guard who couldn’t shoot in Gerald Henderson, and neither he nor anyone else on the team could make Miami pay for the “Blitz Kemba” idea. That – along with Jefferson’s injury and the fact that Miami employed LeBron James at the time – meant the Hornets lost every game.

Batum is a basketball junkie and admiringly watched those games from Portland, where he played the first seven years of his NBA career. “Kemba was basically by himself trying to create,” Batum says. “What a great game plan Miami had. I would have done exactly the same thing.”

Walker remembers those four games with a grimace. “They double-teamed me every time on the pick and roll,” he says, “and it was tough. Now that I have Nic, a lot of pressure off myself. If they blitz me, they are in trouble. I can give him the ball, and he’s either going to score or find somebody else.”

Marvin Williams’ own late-career resurgence has been another big factor in Charlotte’s success. He was the teammate who happily pointed out the difference in size of the two men (Batum is 6-foot-8 and appears taller because he is so lean. Walker is officially listed at 6-foot-1, which might be true if he were standing on an unabridged dictionary).

“Nic and Kemba are very different guys,” Williams says, “but they are very much the same on court. They are both great facilitators. They can pass the ball, making plays for themselves and for others.”

Batum’s looming free agency

There are two potential issues with Batum – one short-term, one long-term. The short-term one: He has had some ankle problems recently. Batum sat out Charlotte’s last game of the regular season with a sprained ankle. The player Walker calls “Mr. Do It All” says his rest was precautionary and that better be all it was, but a slowed-down Batum is just what Charlotte doesn’t need.

“I’m fine,” Batum insists. “I’ll be ready.”

The other issue is much bigger. When the Hornets traded for Batum in June – giving up Henderson and Noah Vonleh to get him – they knew that he might ultimately be a one-year rental. Batum becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season. By the NBA’s current diluted standards and based on how valuable he is to the Hornets, he is probably worth a “max value” deal. The Hornets need to give it to him and keep him around, I would say.

Certainly Walker agrees. Says the point guard: “It’s been a joy and a pleasure to have Nic around, and he’s helped me become a better player. So we definitely need to pay him the big bucks for next season to get him back here so we can have another successful season.”

Batum says he isn’t thinking about his next contract, although he allows that free agency will be “an exciting moment in my life.” NBA teams don’t have the “franchise tag” capability that NFL teams do in these sorts of situations, so Batum can go where he wants this summer. He says he would like to stay in Charlotte, but he hasn’t closed any other doors, which is understandable. But he sounds like he wants to stay if the money is right.

“Our core is young, we signed our coach to an extension and we’re winning,” Batum says. “We can have a great run here.”

Kemba in ‘late and close’

Although a lot has changed for the Hornets since Batum arrived last June, one thing hasn’t. Batum is talking to me and holding a basketball in his hands when he says: “Kemba is clutch. He can score or he can pass. But when it’s late and it’s time to take over the game, we’re like: ‘Here you go.’ ” Batum then takes the basketball and pantomimes handing it to Walker, who laughs.

It is true, though. The NBA has a subset of statistics called “late and close,” situations in which two minutes or fewer remain in the game and the score is within four points are counted.

Walker scored 83 points in those situations this season – No. 1 in the NBA. Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant was No. 2. Walker shot 90.7 percent from the free-throw line in “late and close” situations, only missing four times all year.

So if it gets tight, the ball is usually at least going to go to Walker. And invariably it gets tight in the playoffs. But this time, if the Heat double-teams the short guy from New York, he has a tall Frenchman as his wingman.

No. 6 Hornets vs. No. 3 Heat schedule

▪  Game 1: Sunday, Charlotte at Miami, 5:30 p.m, TNT

▪  Game 2: Wednesday, Charlotte at Miami, 7 p.m., NBA TV

▪  Game 3: Saturday, April 23, Miami at Charlotte. 5:30 p.m. TNT

▪  Game 4: Monday, April 25, Miami at Charlotte, TBD

▪  Game 5*: Wednesday, April 27, Charlotte at Miami, TBD

▪  Game 6*: Friday, April 29, Miami at Charlotte, TBD

▪  Game 7*: Sunday, May 1, Charlotte at Miami, TBD

*– if necessary

Kemba’s Improvement

The Hornets are touting Walker for the NBA’s “Most Improved Player” award. Walker’s numbers have gone up substantially in several major categories in the season just before Nic Batum arrived and this one. Three examples:

Points per game: From 17.3 to 20.9

3-point percentage: From 30.4 to 37.1

20-point games: From 20 to 40

Kemba on Nic: “There’s no question the quality of shots that I get now are better. If I had had this guy – and a couple of the others we have now, too – for the last few years, I would have shot at a higher percentage. He always makes the right decision.”

Batum’s Versatility

Stat stuffer: Nic Batum is the Hornets’ “Mr. Do It All,” as Walker says. Batum has averaged 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists this season.

Batum’s signature stat: Only five other NBA players besides Batum have averaged at least 14-6-5 in those categories this season. They are Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Houston’s James Harden, Golden State’s Draymond Green and Cleveland’s LeBron James.

Nic on Kemba: “When I got traded, a couple of guys said you’re going to love Kemba. When I got here, I saw first of all that he’s the best dresser on the team, and a captain who is always talking. Then I learned how tough he was, and how clutch.”

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