Surprise! More injury woes pile up for the Hornets in their relentlessly unforgiving season

·4 min read

Given their uphill climb has nearly reached its exhaustive peak, there’s a certain mentality required for the Charlotte Hornets to push through these final two-plus weeks.

“I think it comes down to understanding the situation,” Dennis Smith Jr. said before they took on New Orleans on Thursday night. “All right, cool, we are not going to make the playoffs. But you’ve still got to have a sense of pride about what you do.

“These last … games, we can’t just come out and lay down. I think we can look at it like, ‘Let’s go get this win, let’s (mess) somebody’s season up, and have a pride about playing in front of our fans and playing for this organization and playing four ourselves.’ We can’t just lay down.”

At this point, it’s awfully hard for the Hornets to collectively even stand up as a unit. The injuries have taken that much of a toll, and their misfortunes continued in their 115-96 loss to New Orleans at Smoothie King Center on Thursday night.

Terry Rozier and Kelly Oubre each exited the game in the first half and didn’t return, further adding to the Hornets’ injury woes. Rozier experienced right foot discomfort and Oubre suffered a right shoulder strain. Smith wasn’t exempt, either, leaving in the third quarter with an illness.

The exact status of all three is unclear.

“I haven’t had a chance to talk to Joe (Sharpe) yet,” coach Steve Clifford said afterwards, referring to the Hornets director of healthcare and sports performance. “So, after we get done here, I’ll grab him before we get on the plane or are on the plane and just hope for the best.”

Those injury woes certainly have to be frustrating for Smith, who was quickly springboarded into an even more dutiful role considering the amount of minutes Rozier and Oubre log in the Hornets’ backcourt. He started the second half in place of Rozier and finished with eight points, four assists and two rebounds in 22 minutes before heading back into the locker room and not returning.

Once he’s feeling better again, thanks to his feisty and always scrappy nature, Smith surely won’t back down from the challenge just because the Hornets (23-51) are shorthanded. That’s because he knows it’s imperative for them to do whatever they can to feel good about themselves heading into an offseason that’s only days away. Injuries or no injuries. Illness or no illness.

“I think that’s very important,” Smith said prior to the game. “For me in particular. This will be, God willing, the first offseason to go into healthy. Last season, I went in having to rehab my UCL in my forearm and the year before that I had the torn meniscus. So, I’m definitely looking forward to going into the offseason with positive vibes.

“But until then I’m focused on taking care of what I can, and remaining healthy and finishing the season strong.”

Smith’s career renaissance has been impressive and only truly marred by — what else? — injuries. He missed 21 games with a sprained right ankle and the Hornets definitely couldn’t replace his defensive prowess.

Heading into their date with the Pelicans, the Hornets’ defense improved by 10.7 points per 100 possessions when Smith has been on the court this season. That represented the second-best mark in the league among players who’ve logged at least 500 minutes.

He’s also swiping a career-best 1.4 steals per game and has already surpassed his previous career-best mark in steals (71) set in 2017-18. He had recorded at least five assists in five straight games prior to posting four against New Orleans, and that stretch matched Smith’s longest streak of the season. The hope and plan for Smith is to show — and prove — he wants to be around beyond these final hours of their 2022-23 campaign.

“As much as I can,” Smith said. “I think everybody knows this is home for me. Not just saying basketball-wise, but this is literally home. I’m from North Carolina, born and bred. And coach Cliff, I’ve spoken about my love for him numerous times and how he’s a great coach and things of that nature. So, whatever I can do to be back, I’ll be thankful for that opportunity, and I’m going to make the most of my time there.”