Playfully pausing to take a moment as he was walking by seconds before pregame introductions, Hornets coach James Borrego massaged Kelly Oubre Jr.’s shoulders.
Oubre appeared to be focusing intently on what was ahead, preparing to come off the bench just like he typically does. Even with Gordon Hayward sitting out due to discomfort in his right foot, missing just his second game of the season, Oubre’s task remained the same: Give the Hornets a bounce, lifting them up if they went through dry spells offensively.
But the usual kisses that Oubre blows into the Spectrum Center stands were absent in the Hornets’ 113-91 loss to Atlanta on Sunday. They were replaced instead by more frustrating barren stretches that he hasn’t been accustomed to during his first season with the franchise.
On a night the Hornets were abysmal offensively, sinking a season-worst 11.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc and shooting 39.1 percent overall from the field, Oubre’s display embodied the struggles that accompanied them misfiring on their initial 18 attempts from 3-point range.
“Yeah, I’m just trying to come in and find my rhythm,” said Oubre, who connected on only one of his nine jumpers from 3-point territory. “We shot, what, 4-for-30-something, 11 percent? I can focus on myself. I have to get in the gym tomorrow, continue to just lock in on my fundamentals, try to find my rhythm, just in the gym putting up reps like I was doing before I went out for 10 days with COVID.”
His stroke is uncharacteristically off and he hasn’t played with the same confidence in the Hornets’ last two games. Since bursting back onto the scene last Wednesday in Boston, collecting 18 points and nailing half of his shot attempts, Oubre is having serious trouble breaking out of his shooting woes.
He’s making just 29.6 percent of his shots and the numbers are even worse from 3-point land. Seeing him knock down only one of his last 15 attempts behind the 3-point line isn’t helping the Hornets’ spacing. The defense isn’t being forced to stretch as much, which allows the opposition to collapse on the others closer to the basket.
In his last two outings, he’s totaled 20 points with 12 coming Sunday night but on 5-of-13 shooting (1 of 9 from deep). This from a guy who averages 16.3 points per game.
“It’s hard being away from the game of basketball for five, six days, seven days and coming back,” Miles Bridges said. “It feels like an eternity when you come back. So we know what Kelly is capable of and that COVID was definitely a setback for him. But he’s going to bounce back from it. I believe in him.”
Although Oubre hoisted some shots at Charlotte’s training facility the day before he was summoned to Boston to rejoin his teammates last week, he didn’t have much time to gather himself physically and get into basketball shape again. He had no clue precisely how his body would react and he’s still learning on the fly.
The entire process threw him entirely off his systematic plan. It had him feeling like he’s starting from scratch again.
“When you get sick it messes up your whole rhythm, the flow that you’ve had,” Oubre said. “You are at home for 10 stays, not able to travel, not able to leave. You’ve got to work out whenever you feel comfortable or you get cleared from the team to work out. So it’s not like you are in control of your own destiny whenever you get sick, because you have to follow health and safety protocols. Coming back is a little tough, but that’s why we do what we do because we have to perform no matter what.”
Borrego called some plays with the hopes of getting Oubre going and there was one sequence midway through the fourth quarter Sunday where he diagrammed something for him coming out of a timeout. When the ball found its way to Oubre in the corner and he cut it loose, the result mirrored that of many others since his return, clanking off the trim.
“Same shots,” Borrego said. “I don’t see anything different there. He’s getting good looks, they just are going to fall. Keep shooting, keep shooting it. Let it fly. Don’t hesitate.”
He didn’t hesitate on a play against De’Andre Hunter in the fourth quarter when he went up and attempted to block Hunter’s right-handed dunk. Hunter crashed hard onto the floor and remained down for a bit before walking off under his own power.
After video review, the foul was upgraded to a Flagrant 2 and Oubre got ejected.
“I made a basketball play,” Oubre said. “I don’t play the game to hurt anybody. I don’t play the game to inflict pain. I play the game with passion and energy. I saw that he had a wide-open layup, and I tried to go and contest it and I made a basketball play.
“I checked to see if he was OK. I’ve fell like that multiple times in my career and I hate to see anybody fall like that, out of control. But I didn’t try to hurt him maliciously, so the refs made a call and we have to go with it.”
Three games into his return to the Hornets, the ball just hasn’t gone through the net for him.
“It’s so crazy because Boston I felt like was a bit of fool’s gold because I was just so excited,” Oubre said. “It’s kind of … I wouldn’t say beginner’s luck, but I was just so excited. I have a lot of history in Boston. The energy was high and I just wanted to go out there and get a win just because it was my first game back just like I want to do every night.
“But it was just a different game, a different play style -- more open floor, more consistent game plan, things like that. That was just one game. You have to expect the averages to level it out a little bit. And I’m going through a season to where I have to get out of this slump and I will.”