The signs were already there.
Even before the Charlotte Hornets finally got that gorilla the size of King Kong off their back Wednesday night, indicators had bubbled up slowly during this COVID-19 challenged season. A sprinkling of impressive victories scattered throughout one of the most anticipated campaigns in recent memory provided the slightest of tastes, feeling like that initial droplet of water when a body is dying to have its thirst quenched.
But then came the past five days. Didn’t matter if the Hornets were staring at a daunting schedule that had them squaring off against the NBA’s defending champions twice in 72 hours, followed by a road date with the team that’s essentially been akin to a bullying big brother — holding them up by the collar while they’re powerless to do anything about it.
Sweeping all three games, punctuated by holding off Philadelphia, 109-98, at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night, on the heels of their spirited take down of Milwaukee, is the latest indicator that these Hornets should be taken seriously. These aren’t the guys in the purple and teal of old. These are the kinds of games that build serious character for a young team, running up into the City of Brotherly Love and staring straight at an opponent that had beaten them 16 straight times and was riding a six-game winning streak that elevated them in the jumbled Eastern Conference standings.
“Well, it shows growth,” said Miles Bridges, who helped them close it out with a strong fourth quarter. “We beat the defending champs two times and to come in and get a really controlled win here, it shows a lot about this group of guys. So we just want to continue to get better, just learn from this game and keep going.”
Where this group is currently rowing represents waters that haven’t been navigated by the franchise in quite a while. The Hornets (23-19) boast their best record through 41 games in more than two decades. The last time they were three games above .500 at the midway point was during the 2000-01 season when they were 23-18.
Let’s just take a gander at the Hornets’ record over the past three seasons at the halfway mark: In 2018-19, their final season with Kemba Walker leading the charge, they were 19-22 (.463 winning percentage). Fast forward to 2019-20, which was the first year of their roster restructuring, and they posted a 16-25 (.390) record before registering an 18-18 mark a year ago in the shortened 72-game campaign.
But this season, in climbing to their best record at this juncture since the days in the immediate aftermath of the Y2K frenzy, the Hornets have responded in ways they haven’t before. It doesn’t matter if they were without their top reserve for a second straight game due to COVID protocols or if their offense couldn’t completely get in gear early, needing a breathtaking display by Gordon Hayward to secure a 14-point cushion heading into the locker room at halftime.
A blistering 15-point opening quarter by Hayward was the necessary remedy to get them jumpstarted, and his perfect 9-for-9 output in the first half propelled him to becoming the fourth player in team history since 1996-97 to post 20 or more points in the game’s initial 24 minutes without misfiring.
Some of the names Hayward joined with his show-stopping shooting display signal just how long it’s been since the Hornets have enjoyed any kind of sustained success. Anthony Mason, Baron Davis, Glen Rice and Al Jefferson all pop up on similar lists that Hayward hopped on board thanks to toasting the 76ers.
“I saw a couple go in early,” Hayward said. “All credit to my teammates for finding me. We played that way where we were attacking the paint and making the right pass. I had some easy looks so I was able to knock them down. More than anything I credit my teammates.”
There’s plenty of games remaining. A flurry of things are surely on tap over the coming months. A log-jam engulfing the bulk of the conference standings right now, proving the East is as tough as it’s been in a while. Here are the Hornets, winners of four straight and seven of their last nine, having one of their best starts – and overall stretches – in years and they can’t currently climb higher than seventh place.
“I continue to preach this to the guys, I’ve got to stay in the moment as well,” coach James Borrego said. “We’re human beings. So you are going to drift there at some point. But the focus has got to stay on the day, the present, the right now. Not even worrying about (Monday’s) game against Milwaukee, not worrying about the next game in Spectrum Center (on Friday).
“That’s how you grow and that’s how you get better. That’s tough and that’s not easy to do. Young teams, veterans tams, they want to look ahead. They want to get to the end of the season. … The wins will take care of themselves, the standings will continue to take care of themselves if we continue to grow and get better, especially on the defensive end.”
Improving their rating on that side of the ball, which has gradually improved to 26th in the league at 112.9 after being ranked dead last for most of the first three months, remains a must.
“Yeah I think that’s our next level,” Borrego said. “I think that’s what takes us to the next level, is our physicality. We want to become a more physical, defensive team moving forward. The offense is in place. We’ve got to keep moving that forward obviously, keep growing offensively. But for us to turn and continue to climb here in the East, it’s going to come on the defensive end. Can we become more physical?
“That’s one-on-one defense, that’s helpside defense. We are doing a better job at the rim recently. So limiting shots at the rim, and when it does get there affecting their shots at the rim. And then rebounding the ball, that’s all physicality. We’ve just got to hit people, go rebound and figure out somehow, some way. But you boil it down to one thing I’d say – physicality.”
This story was originally published January 12, 2022 11:53 PM.