For all their flaws — terrible defensive rebounding, lack of rim-protection, minimal playoff experience — the Charlotte Hornets could always count on one thing this season:
Astounding poise down the stretch of close games.
They can’t count on that anymore. And they know it.
“We’ve been doing so well in clutch situations all year. It’s kind of foreign to be losing these close games,” said Hornets forward Miles Bridges after a 118-109 overtime loss to the New York Knicks.
The Hornets came back from 18 down and had the last possession of regulation. Point guard Devonte Graham had a wide-open 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds left that he missed.
With that, the Hornets botched a major opportunity. Because the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Indiana Pacers, the Hornets would have clinched eighth place in the Eastern Conference by winning. Instead, they now must beat the Wizards in Washington on Sunday to claim eighth place.
This was theirs. What they failed to do was close out, which is telling. There was a time this season when the Hornets were on a pace to have the greatest clutch-time season in NBA history.
Now, they’re on a four-game losing streak, staggering to that play-in tournament next week.
Miles Bridges returns, LaMelo Ball sits
There was much to digest about this loss. Bridges was stunningly spectacular, considering this was his first game back from a COVID-19 diagnosis. He finished with 30 points in 34 minutes off the bench. It was as if he never missed six games with the virus that disrupted the whole world the past year.
Bridges says he knows he’ll feel fatigue Sunday, but Saturday wasn’t overtaxing.
“When that first 3 went down (he was 5 of 12 from 3-point range), that’s when I knew I was back,” said Bridges, who was cleared Saturday morning by the NBA to play.
The curious thing about this game wasn’t how much Bridges played, but how little rookie starter LaMelo Ball did. The front-runner for NBA Rookie of the Year played four minutes in the second half, none in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Coach James Borrego said his decision was about who brought the Hornets back from a 48-30 deficit. To a large degree, Graham — 25 points, five 3-pointers and 8-of-8 from the foul line — fueled that comeback.
“That group was rolling and I stuck with them,” Borrego said of a Graham-Terry Rozier backcourt. “All it came down to.”
Graham said he had a wide-open 3 to win it after a Knicks defender fell down. It simply didn’t go in from 27 feet.
One last chance in Washington
Desperation breeds clarity: The Hornets, Pacers and Wizards are now all tied at 33-38. The Hornets still control this situation because they hold the tiebreakers, both individually and collectively, over Indiana and Washington.
Now, the bad news: The Pacers have a very winnable game Sunday against the draft lottery-bound Toronto Raptors, and the Wizards have a triple-double master in Russell Westbrook. The Wizards list Bradley Beal as questionable for Sunday; he missed the past two games with a hamstring strain.
The Hornets certainly can beat the Wizards, having done so in both prior meetings this season. But to pull this off they sure can’t mimic the horrible start they had Saturday, which is too common for them of late.
“We’ve got to do a better job of coming out and playing like we’re down 20 before we actually get down” 20, Graham observed.
Then, Graham expressed the weight of Sunday in Washington.
“Gotta win it,” Graham said. “That’s it. Simple.”