Scott Fowler

Kemba Walker must be best player on floor for Charlotte Hornets to have a shot

Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15), driving to the basket against Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic during Game 1, has to be the best player on the floor for Charlotte to have a chance in the series.
Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15), driving to the basket against Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic during Game 1, has to be the best player on the floor for Charlotte to have a chance in the series. AP

Kemba Walker still hasn’t won a playoff game with the Charlotte Hornets, and he’s not going to anytime soon unless he starts shimmying and shining.

Walker’s play was one of dozens of problems Sunday night in Miami’s 123-91 thumping of the Hornets in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. But Walker also has the best shot at being the solution for a Charlotte team that will play Game 2 in Miami Wednesday night, hoping not to have to fly back to the Queen City in an 0-2 hole.

“We were just bad, man,” Walker said of Sunday’s performance. “We were bad.”

Was it the team’s worst game of the season?

“No question,” he said.

Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker talks about what went wrong in Game 1 of Hornets-Heat playoff series.

It wasn’t Walker’s worst game of the season if you look at the numbers. He shot respectably (6-for-13) and scored decently (19 points).

But Walker’s plus-minus was a nasty minus-32, and Miami Heat point guard Goran Dragic had 10 assists compared with Kemba’s one. The Walker-Dragic matchup is one that Charlotte absolutely must win every night to have any shot at this series.

To make matters worse, Walker also tweaked his knee in Sunday’s game. He got treatment on it Monday and participated in the team’s optional shootaround at the University of Miami. He seemed to be moving OK.

“The knee is fine, and the days of rest will probably help me,” Walker said Monday. “I got treatment, but I’ve been getting treatment all year. I’m not missing any games.”

‘Dunk after dunk after dunk’

In their current incarnation, from 2004 onward, the Charlotte NBA franchise has never won a playoff game. Sunday night made it 0-for-9. And what a big egg to lay on national TV. Even all the Miami teams that featured the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh never scored 123 points in the playoffs – Sunday night constituted a Miami franchise high.

The recent playoff history for Charlotte’s NBA franchise is nothing to brag about. As the Bobcats, the team lost four straight to Orlando in 2010 and four more in a row to Miami in 2014. Coupled with Sunday’s loss, that’s an 0-9 playoff record since NBA basketball returned to Charlotte in 2004.

“Dunk after dunk after dunk,” was the way Al Jefferson put it regarding Miami’s offense Sunday night, with Gastonia’s Hassan Whiteside doing most of that damage. Then the Hornets also allowed Luol Deng, averaging 12.3 points, to score 31. The game was basically over after Miami’s 41-point first quarter.

“We didn’t match their intensity at all,” Walker said Monday. “Our coverages were bad. Our communication. Just everything. We were a little off. And for a lot of us, we were really excited. Really anxious. I think that got to us a little bit as well.” 

At their best, the Hornets flow on offense through Batum and Walker. Each had only one assist Sunday. And so while they combined for 43 points, the Charlotte offense too often seemed stagnant. Walker never could get to the rim, as the Heat made sure to have defensive help available at all times on every pick-and-roll he tried.

Walker seems certain that Wednesday night’s game will be different, so I asked the point guard if he wanted to guarantee a win.

“Nah, that’s not me,” he said. “I’m not that type of guy. But I guarantee we’ll play better. I know we’ll be a lot better defensively and that our intensity is going to ramp up.”

An ‘awesome’ game plan ignored

The bad news for the Hornets is that in the history of the NBA, the team winning Game 1 of a seven-game series has won the series 77 percent of the time. And no amount of adjustments – if Steve Clifford plays Al Jefferson more and Cody Zeller less, for instance, since Whiteside is much more foul-prone when guarding Jefferson – will matter if the Hornets play as badly as they did in Game 1.

“Coach gave us an awesome game plan (Sunday),” Walker said. “And we just completely went against it.”

Why that would happen and how it could happen in the most important game of the season is a difficult question to answer. Miami played brutally beautiful basketball. Charlotte got “manhandled,” to use Clifford’s word.

At one point Sunday, Charlotte trailed Miami 21-5 in rebounding.

If it is going to be any different the rest of the series, lots of things must change for the Hornets. But the most important thing is this: Walker has to become the best player on the floor.

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