They were coming off one of their most brutal defeats of the season, losing to the worst team in the Eastern Conference, and there was little doubt in coach James Borrego’s eyes that the Charlotte Hornets’ mindset would be vastly different.
“We should respond,” the coach said Monday not long before game time. “That’s the goal here. Off the Phoenix loss, we responded the next three games, next four games and we had a little bump in the road the other night against Orlando. Now we’ve got to respond and this group’s been resilient all year.”
It was foreshadowing at its best.
Undeterred by not having LaMelo Ball in the lineup due to a non-COVID illness, the Hornets took down New York 97-87 in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden — a feel-good victory if there ever was one. They were up for most of the afternoon, never feeling threatened, and got contributions from everybody in the eight-man rotation Borrego utilized minus Ball’s services.
“I thought our guys’ effort was fantastic,” Borrego said. “I thought we responded. We did respond to the last loss. The group as a whole responded on the defensive end. I loved the physicality. The mentality tonight was to go win a game. That’s what we did.”
Here are the key takeaways from the Hornets’ Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee:
MONSTER MILES BRIDGES
Miles Bridges had The Garden crowd groaning all afternoon. That’s what happens when an opposing player puts up a career-best 38 points.
Bridges was hot for the Hornets (24-20) from the get-go, posting a blistering 22 points in the first quarter for a new personal best in a quarter, and draining all but one of his initial eight attempts. That output landed him in rare territory, giving him the distinction of being the only player in franchise history over the past 20 seasons to record 20 or more points in the opening quarter. He’s just the third Hornet to toss in that many points in a quarter since 1996-97.
But it wasn’t strictly a scoring expedition by Bridges. He was also a solid playmaker and crashed the glass, too. He swiped 12 rebounds to earn just his third double-double since Christmas and also recorded five assists.
“Just staying aggressive,” Bridges said. “My teammates, they did a good job of finding me early on. Once I saw like one or two go in, that’s when I got going. Coach kept trusting me to run the offense through me this game and it worked out. “
LAMELO BALL’S MORNING ROLLERCOASTER
Word trickled out about an hour prior to tipoff that Ball was being downgraded to questionable due to an illness, leaving the 20-year-old out of the starting lineup. He wasn’t feeling well and never even made it out on the court for pregame warmups.
With less than three minutes left before the opening jump ball, the Hornets said he was available to play if needed. But Ball didn’t arrive on the bench until the second quarter, finally spotted standing in the huddle following the Hornets’ 32-point outburst in the first.
After not getting an opportunity to put up any shots in pregame warmups, Ball hoisted a few once the Hornets returned out of the locker room at halftime. Still, after posing for a picture with Julius Randle’s son and launching some jumpers, he didn’t have the look of someone who was going to play. And he didn’t.
“He was sick,” Borrego said.
Cody Martin started in the backcourt along with Terry Rozier in Ball’s place and was solid with nine points, seven rebounds and four assists.
“We knew we had to be aggressive,” Bridges said. “Melo, he usually brings that aggression for us and we go as he goes. Somebody had to pick up the slack. I wanted to go out there and be aggressive from the jump. And then T-Ro (Terry Rozier) started being aggressive and then Gordon (Hayward). It was like a domino effect and we just got going.”
TERRY ROZIER SIZZLES AGAIN
Terry Rozier is still on fire. And that was bad news for the Knicks.
Keeping his impressive stretch going, Rozier netted 22 points to go with seven rebounds and four assists. His first-half production of 17 points, combined with Bridges’ sensational half, had the two of them outscoring New York in the first 24 minutes all by themselves.
It was the fifth time Rozier has poured in 20 or more in the last seven games. The Hornets won four of those games with the lone defeat coming in Washington. Rozier canned 4 of 7 attempts beyond the arc and moved up on the franchise’s all-time made 3-pointers list, pulling into fifth place on the leaderboard with 497.
Minimal unforced errors
Limiting miscues and taking care of the ball was also at the forefront of the Hornets’ reasons for their win over the Knicks. Even without Ball logging a single minute, they didn’t have much of an issue with their efficiency offensively.
The Hornets turned the ball over only seven times, directly leading to seven points by New York, and two of those occurrences happened in the fourth quarter. Not bad for a team that averages 13.1 turnovers per game.
By contrast, they forced the Knicks to throw it away 15 times and they feasted, scoring 14 points off those errors.