The unusual three-day break in between games was supposed to be a nice reset of sort for the Charlotte Hornets.
Rare practice time. A brief stopover at home. Things to massage their mental given they were in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
But it all came crashing to a thud Saturday morning when LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Mason Plumlee and Jalen McDaniels entered the league’s health and safety protocols, leaving them each potentially sidelined for 10 days. A blow seemingly out of nowhere.
“The initial news is always, it will take a little bit out of your sail,” coach James Borrego said. “It will hit you in the gut a little, When they say, ‘Player X, Y and Z tested this,’ my initial gut is it takes your breath away for a second. Then you regroup and go, ‘We’ve been here before. ... It’s still a challenge obviously. It still hits you a little bit. ‘I can’t believe these guys are out and I still can’t believe we are dealing with this.’ But we are built to respond.”
Apparently, the are. Holding firm in the fourth quarter despite Atlanta’s charge, the undermanned Hornets knocked off the Hawks 130-127 at State Farm Arena to snap their losing skid.
“It’s big time,” said Kelly Oubre, who got the start at shooting guard and poured in 26 points. “Today’s win is big-time because it shows the guys that we had to call up and fill the space, it showed they can do this, they can compete in this league. It allowed to grow closer as a unit, knowing we had to step up for our fallen brothers. But all in all it’s been a crazy 24 hours, 48 hours. Today, we couldn’t even have a schedule because we were waiting on contact tracing, COVID testing, stuff like that.
“So we really didn’t have any time to prep for the game and I think guys kind of felt that antsiness of not being prepared. So we just went out there and played b---- to the wall.”
Here are three things we learned in the Hornets’ victory in Atlanta:
NEW MAKESHIFT STARTING 5
Ish Smith went from out of the rotation into the starting lineup. And aside from the incredible second-half performance he had in Brooklyn against the Nets, he turned in his best outing of the season.
Receiving his first start, Smith had a season-best 18 points along with seven assists and five rebounds. Miles Bridges, one of the mainstays, scored 13 of his game-high 32 points in the fourth quarter.
Borrego gave Kelly Oubre his sixth start at shooting guard in place of Rozier and went with Nick Richards at center, and the new starting five scored all but 17 of the 68 points they posted in the first half. Gordon Hayward wasn’t as on in the second half as he was in the first, and with three-fifths of their typical starting lineup out it’s going to be important for him to pick up some of the additional load created in their absence.
Despite their lack of play as a unit together, the starting five didn’t turn the ball over once through the first half. In fact, the Hornets did an exceptional job taking care of the ball in their fast-paced first half. PJ Washington had the lone miscue.
“I feel like this is a statement game to let people know that we are here,” Bridges said. “We’re missing key people. Key offense, key defense. But we’ve got guys that will step up and make winning plays for us down the road and we are going to need that these next four of five games. We miss the people that’s out, but at the same time we are ready to play basketballs games.
“So we are just going to try to win every game by any means.”
CODY MARTIN SOLID IN RETURN
Whatever Cody Martin had, he’s over it.
After sitting out in Chicago and Milwaukee due to illness, which he attributed to some kind of stomach bug, Martin returned to action as expected and immediately showed off his versatility. Borrego used him as a ball-handler to bring it up the floor and initiate their offense.
Coming off the bench, he was effective all the way around, registering a career-best 19 points to go with six rebounds and four assists. Hawks center John Collins did get the best of him in the third quarter with a nasty right-handed dunk.
“He did a great job,” Borrego said. “Obviously, Ish was the starting point guard. But we knew Cody was going to have to handle throughout the night. He did a great job getting us into sets. Obviously, we don’t play in a lot of sets right now. We’re playing in flow, transition and spacing. He did a great job just keeping us in that rhythm, in our system. I thought he made great decisions all night.
“We drafted him as a ball handling guard and his decision making was there. Tonight he had it on display and he had a major impact tonight. A lot of Cody’s growth and impact you are seeing on our team right now is his ability to shoot the ball, get to the rim, make decisions. Obviously, defense is what makes him elite in my opinion.”
OPEN BOUK TEST
Fans have been clamoring to see James Bouknight.
Up until his number was called against the Hawks, the lone time the Hornets’ first-round pick saw action as a pro was long after the outcome was decided. But with the limited number of guards the Hornets currently have available, he’s risen in the rotation and got his opportunity to contribute.
It was brief, though.
In his six minutes he didn’t score, mustering just one shot — a layup blocked at the rim.
“Bouk’s just got to stay with it,” Borrego said. “There’s nothing tricky here. Just got to stay with it. He’s learning, he’s growing. He’s going to be fine. There is nothing to be antsy about right now. We love Bouk, we believe in Bouk. He keeps working, he’s going to get more time as we go.”