Malik Monk and the Hornets staked a claim Wednesday: NBA, you’ve got to respect us now

Rick Bonnell
·4 min read

Malik Monk knows embarrassment as a Charlotte Hornet. He’s determined to know NBA respect.

“We’re going to make them respect us,” Monk said Wednesday, after scoring 29 points in a 124-121 road victory over the Phoenix Suns.

You get to say that after you beat a hall of famer (Chris Paul) and a two-time All-Star (Devin Booker). The Hornets were down 17. They beat a team that had won 12 of 14. The Suns didn’t take the night off, the Hornets yanked this one from them.

Charlotte is still sub-.500 at 15-16 and far from a lock to end a four-season stretch without a playoff appearance. But they are relevant again, in 7th place in the Eastern Conference. They have demonstrated, stretching into last season, that they will pull out close games at the end. And they have a star in rookie point guard LaMelo Ball who already is a winning player.

Posting numbers as a rookie is one thing. Impacting winning is a lot harder. When I asked Monk why the Hornets are the best clutch team in the NBA statistically, it was telling that he singled out Ball, who finished Wednesday with 20 points and eight assists.

“Melo!” Monk said. “Melo just finds everybody, and he finds us at the right times, too.

“That’s what we feed off: Him, Gordon (Hayward) and T-Ro (Terry Rozier).”

Barring a complete collapse, Ball will be Rookie of the Year. But how he’s changing the perception of the Hornets will matter more than a trophy.

Monk had a 20-point second quarter to make this a one-point game at halftime. From there, Ball kept attacking, whether it was a lob pass to Miles Bridges at the rim or a crossover dribble for a fourth-quarter dunk.

Clutch-ness

Ball is the X factor this season, but the foundation of the Hornets’ poise in the clutch started last season, when they finished fifth in the league in that category. The NBA defines clutch time as the last five minutes of a game with the margin between two teams is five points or less.

This season, the Hornets dominate clutch-time efficiency. They are 10-5 in games decided down the stretch. In their 42 minutes of clutch time this season, they outscore opponents by a league-best 51.4 points per 100 possessions.

“It’s a combination of confidence, trust and execution,” coach James Borrego said of his team’s remarkable late-game poise.

The Hornets don’t overwhelm opponents with talent or size. Even with the additions of Ball and Hayward, they are still likely in the bottom half of the NBA in collective talent.

But they listen and are well organized. When the Hornets had an unexpected five-day break from games in January, due to the Washington Wizards’ COVID-19 issues, Borrego devoted the extra practice time to special situations like late-game execution.

He admires how meticulously his players absorbed all that.

“This is how you win on the margins,” Borrego said. “I believe that’s where my job is most important -- down the stretch in fourth quarters, end-of-game execution.

“They’ve been responsive and attentive in those moments.”

Listen and learn

The Hornets are the NBA’s second-youngest team this season, with an average age of 24.2 years. Borrego said his young guys lean on what experience is there, primarily from Hayward and centers Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo.

Biyombo played 10 1/2 minutes of the fourth quarter, partially because starter Zeller suffered a left hip contusion. Biyombo might not be much of a scorer, but he made several defensive plays late that mattered. He’s constantly talking to younger players -- particularly Ball -- offering advice.

Biyombo wanted to re-sign in Charlotte largely to see through the rebuild that started last season. He loves the sense of collaboration the Hornets are building.

“Paying attention to very small details goes a long way,” Biyombo said. “For us, executing -- paying attention to every little detail -- really matters.”

Monk is as good an example of that as anyone. He floated through his first three NBA seasons before realizing the focus it took to succeed in the NBA.

“I just grew up,” Monk said Wednesday. “I took film (study) seriously. I took everything seriously.”

Collectively, that seriousness is translating to victories. Important ones, Borrego says.

“This is a defining win for us,” Borrego said.

It was a Wednesday in February. Maybe no one else noticed.

But to Monk and his teammates it was a declaration -- you’ve got to respect us now.