50 games in, surging Charlotte Hornets ‘don’t even know how good we really are’

·5 min read

Ish Smith circled the NBA world before coming back home, playing for 40% of the teams in the league. So his sense of perspective about these Charlotte Hornets is something worth listening to.

“We’re so young,” Smith said, “that we don’t even know how good we really are.”

Smith himself doesn’t fit into that “young” category. The former star point guard at Concord’s Central Cabarrus, and then at Wake Forest, is 33 years old and playing for his 12th NBA team. Smith puts the word “journey” in journeyman. For the Hornets, he is a backup veteran point guard who about a third of the time doesn’t get into the game at all.

On Friday night, though, in a 117-114 win against the Los Angeles Lakers, Smith was a star again. He scored 22 points on 10-of-12 shooting, had five assists and made zero turnovers. The Hornets needed every bit of it. Charlotte blew all of a 20-point third-quarter lead against the short-handed Lakers, but still won when L.A.’s Russell Westbrook left a potential game-winning three-pointer a hair short with 0.7 seconds left.

It was a strange and exciting game. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were injured and didn’t play for the Lakers, disappointing many in the sellout crowd of 19,469 who had paid hundreds of dollars for tickets to watch one of the Hornets’ highest-profile games of the season. There were a ton of Lakers fans there.

But Westbrook, given the chance to be ball-dominant again, turned in a vintage performance. He scored 35 points (30 of them in the second half) and nearly willed the Lakers to victory by himself.

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball, left, is hugged by the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James during a break in the action at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC on Friday, January 28, 2022. James did not play due to left knee soreness. Ball had 20 points and seven rebounds in Charlotte’s 117-114 win.
Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball, left, is hugged by the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James during a break in the action at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC on Friday, January 28, 2022. James did not play due to left knee soreness. Ball had 20 points and seven rebounds in Charlotte’s 117-114 win.

As for the Hornets, they found a way to win the sort of game they have so often lost in their team history. They are now 28-22 and sitting in seventh place in the Eastern Conference entering Sunday’s 1 p.m. home game against the L.A. Clippers.

After 50 games this season, the Hornets have shown over and over they have the firepower to be a playoff team for the first time since 2016. On Wednesday night, they scored a franchise-record 158 points at Indiana and won by 32. Those astonishing 158 points constituted the highest point total in the NBA all season.

Friday night, though, was far more typical. Charlotte came down to earth on its 3-point shooting, going a modest 11-of-36 from the arc.

The Hornets grabbed a big lead, then lost all of it. At the end, they had to grind out a game that should have been put away long before.

Still, they managed. Smith thought the game demonstrated signs of a team that is young (Miles Bridges is 23, LaMelo Ball is 20) but maturing.

Said Smith: “We’ve got a really, really talented team. We’re right at that door. ... We’re not far at all. … And we’re young enough to be kind of naive about what’s ahead of us. So I pray we stay that way and win these kinds of games that I’m sure in the past we probably wouldn’t have pulled out.”

Bridges had a game-high 26 points for the Hornets on Friday on only 15 shots, playing another superb all-around game in what has been a revelatory season for him. On the final play, with the Hornets only up 116-114, Bridges switched onto Westbrook in a do-or-die situation.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook flexes following a basket against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC on Friday, January 28, 2022. The Hornets defeated the Lakers 117-114. Westbrook, playing without teammates LeBron James and Anthony Davis, scored a game-high 35 points but missed a potential go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook flexes following a basket against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC on Friday, January 28, 2022. The Hornets defeated the Lakers 117-114. Westbrook, playing without teammates LeBron James and Anthony Davis, scored a game-high 35 points but missed a potential go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds.

“They had a back-to-back (the Lakers also played Thursday) so I knew Russell Westbrook did not want to go to overtime,” Bridges said. “So I knew he was kind of shooting that (3-pointer). I tried to get a good contest (of the shot). He made a couple of those in the fourth, so I was kind of scared when it went up.”

The ball glanced off the front rim. The Hornets’ P.J. Washington grabbed the rebound and got fouled with 0.2 seconds left, making one of two free throws for the final result.

Westbrook said he had thought about driving at first on the potential game-winner.

“I was trying to drive,” Westbrook said, “and then Bridges kind of cut me off. And then it was, ‘Win or go home.’ I was in a good rhythm and I went with it. It was on target, but just a little short. I’ll take it, though, and live with that result.”

Charlotte Hornets forward PJ Washington, left, grabs the final rebound against the Los Angeles Lakers at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC on Friday, January 28, 2022. The Hornets defeated the Lakers, 117-114. Washington rebounded a missed Russell Westbrook three-pointer that would have given the Lakers the lead.
Charlotte Hornets forward PJ Washington, left, grabs the final rebound against the Los Angeles Lakers at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC on Friday, January 28, 2022. The Hornets defeated the Lakers, 117-114. Washington rebounded a missed Russell Westbrook three-pointer that would have given the Lakers the lead.

So will the Hornets.

Playing without Gordon Hayward, Jalen McDaniels and Kelly Oubre Jr. themselves, they found a way. In part of the fourth quarter, coach James Borrego played an odd lineup with two point guards (Ball and Smith) and a third guy who plays a lot of point guard when needed (Terry Rozier). Borrego’s fourth-quarter substitutions are always interesting, as he doesn’t feel that beholden to his starters. Smith played nearly 11 minutes of the fourth quarter, while Ball played seven.

“If I like what’s going on out there, I’m gonna to let that thing ride,” Borrego said.

Mason Plumlee, meanwhile, played 38 minutes and had a season-high 17 rebounds, as the Hornets managed to cobble one together.

“Some nights it’s going to be pretty,” Borrego said. “Some nights it’s not.”

Good teams, though, find ways to win on both those kinds of nights. On Friday, that’s what the Hornets did.