This had the makings of perfect litmus.
Victories in their first two games of the season had the Charlotte Hornets feeling good about themselves. But Brooklyn represented a different challenge.
“It’s a great test for us,” Hornets coach James Borrego said before tipoff. “Obviously, a great team, a title contender full of talent, full of experience. They are going to be right there in the mix this season for an NBA title this season. For us, it’s a great challenge early on to see where we are at.”
They passed. And with flying colors, knocking off the Nets 111-95 at Barclays Center on Sunday to move to 3-0 for the first time ever.
“We just want to show that we are not scared of any team,” Miles Bridges said. “Brooklyn Nets, they’ve got Kevin Durant, James Harden, a great supporting cast. So, we just really wanted to come in, focus and we wanted to win the first six minutes, because the last two games we came out really slow and we knew we couldn’t do that against them. So we came out first six minutes, tried to punch them in the mouth and it helped us the rest of the game.”
Here are three things we learned in the Hornets’ impressive victory:
MILES BRIDGES IS ON FIRE
Where would the Hornets be without the stellar play of Bridges?
On his path to restricted free agency, the fourth-year forward is off to a flying start and is turning in some rather impressive performances. Following up Friday’s 30-point, seven-rebound showing in Cleveland, Bridges was a force against the Nets with 32 points and nine rebounds.
He even had a nifty 360-degree slam after collecting a steal off a James Harden turnover, displaying some slam dunk contest flair in effortless fashion. He’s in a good groove.
“Yeah for sure,” Bridges said. “I kind of felt like this last year at the end of the season. But like I said, my teammates are doing a great job of finding me, coach is doing a good job of drawing stuff up for me. I just want to continue to keep playing hard.”
Sounds like music to Borrego’s ears.
“He’s a matchup problem,” he said. “And this is why we’ve put him in this position. And he earned that position. We haven’t just handed him over these minutes. He’s put himself in this position. He’s worked on his shot, he’s worked on his playmaking. We saw this towards the end of last season. And now we are just seeing it at a more consistent high level. And I’m just really proud of him. He’s put the time in and overall he just gives us a ton of confidence right now.”
LAMELO CONTINUING EFFICIENCY
LaMelo Ball apparently has an admirer who’s pretty famous in the borough the Nets play in.
Jay Z struck up a conversation with Ball at halftime, chatting it up courtside before getting warmed up. Perhaps the hip-hop icon and entrepreneur was trying to distract Ball and throw him off his game, because he had it going again.
If so, it didn’t work.
Ball accounted for 70.6% of Charlotte’s offense during the first seven minutes of the third quarter — five points, three assists and seven points created off assists.
Just another typical outing by Ball, who posted 18 points, six rebounds and five assists without logging a mere second in the fourth quarter. This just in: He’s pretty good. And also unselfish, suggesting to Borrego that he leave Ish Smith in because he was playing so well in the final 11-plus minutes.
“He doesn’t have a bad day,” Borrego said. “He comes in with a joy and a spirit every day to practice. That’s tough to do for 82 games and he’s done it consistently. Even coming off a bad game, a tough loss, a bad play, his spirit is the same. It’s fearless, it’s joyful and our group rallies around that.
“We may have a bad half, but coming out the second half he’s coming with that same spirit and attitude. So that’s the biggest thing. His playmaking is elite, his finishing is much better than I expected this early in his career and then obviously making shots, that’s just the cherry on top when he’s making shots.”
NO FALL OFF WITH ISH SMITH
Ball and Bridges weren’t the only visiting players to get a rise out of the Brooklyn faithful.
That honor also goes to Smith. Yes, him. Smith was the recipient of plenty of “oohs” thanks to some of his ankle-breaking, quick moves. He was a catalyst for the second unit, pouring in 15 points to go with four rebounds and three steals and was on the floor for nearly the entire fourth quarter save for 47 seconds.
“First and foremost, I played like crap in the first half,” Smith said. “I played terrible. And Melo was holding us down, Miles was holding us down. So I just kind of told myself, when I got back in the game, make an impact. Whether defensively or offensively. And we just kind of got rolling as a second unit.
“So when I came in the game in the second half, I just wanted to help and thought we got a good win.”
There definitely wasn’t much drop-off when Smith ran the offense with Ball resting. Behind Smith’s energy and incredible decision-making, the Hornets turned a one-point deficit entering the fourth quarter into an advantage as large as 18 and cruised. In crunch time, Smith was nearly flawless, and it couldn’t have been more needed.
“Ish is instant offense,” Borrego said. “He’s always done this. Playing against him all these years, he’s a one-man fastbreak. And we thought he was a great fit for us that way. There’s no drop-off. Sometimes our pace goes up more when Ish is in the game. Melo might do it more with the pass, the kick ahead. Ish does it with his legs and his speed. So for us, there is no drop-off. Devonte (Graham) last year was a little more methodical. Obviously, he shot the ball at a higher clip. He was more ball in his hands, control the offense, shoot it from 3. Ish is more downhill speed and pace, and I think it fits our personnel.”