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The Charlotte Hornets’ chance to win at Indiana Tuesday night in the first game of the NBA play-in tournament seem very poor.
Charlotte went 0-5 over the past eight days to stagger into this sports purgatory — not the playoffs, exactly, but not the regular season, either.
How do the Hornets pull off an unlikely win in a do-or-die scenario Tuesday night? I’ve got two words for you:
Wait, did you think I was going to say LaMelo Ball?
It’s great that LaMelo has returned from his wrist injury, and he’s good for several highlights in every game.
But at this moment, Terry Rozier is Charlotte’s best player, and he’s their best hope against Indiana.
I think Rozier will need to score at least 25-30 points against the Pacers, and even then it may not be enough. But Rozier — who has 50 games of NBA playoff experience on a Charlotte team that otherwise has so little — represents the Hornets’ best shot at a road win.
The amount of screens set for him and plays called for him against Indiana should reach well into the double figures. And if the game comes down to a last-second shot for Charlotte, Rozier must be the one to take it.
Rozier quietly just finished a tremendous regular season for Charlotte. He scored 1407 points in 2020-21, and no other teammate even got to 900. Rozier’s combination of durability (he played in 69 of a possible 72 games), three-point shooting (he finished fifth in the entire NBA with 222 threes) and outright clutch play (hello, Golden State) has been unparalleled for the Hornets this season.
“He’s been a rock for us all year,” Hornets coach James Borrego said of Rozier Monday. “The No. 1 thing is he’s been available, for the most part, every single night. He’s not complained one time. He’s embraced this role, this opportunity. He’s worked his tail off… We’ll lean on him (against the Pacers) heavily.”
With the hand-wringing about Gordon Hayward’s right foot sprain that will cause him to miss his 25th game in a row Tuesday night, and the hype train that surrounds the “LaMelo for Rookie of the Year” campaign, Rozier sometimes gets lost in the shuffle when Hornets fans talk about this team. And that’s unusual, because a team’s leading scorer doesn’t usually get overlooked.
Opposing teams certainly don’t overlook him. Rozier came into training camp in incredible shape, having lost 15 pounds and gained some muscle. He averaged 20.4 points, 4.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds this season for the Hornets, earning his “Scary Terry” nickname, and he now knows what Kemba Walker felt for years in Charlotte.
Like Kemba, Rozier’s name now headlines the top of every scouting report, underlined and bold-faced. “Don’t let this guy beat you.” That’s basically what other coaches say about Rozier, since Hayward remains hurt and Ball is shooting only 30.9% over his past four games.
Rozier, who wasn’t available for interviews Monday, said Sunday after a last-minute loss to Washington that lately the Hornets offense has been “too predictable, and I will leave it at that.” He was right on at least one count, for the Hornets have been too predictable in the half-court. Hayward got this team out of so many bad possessions in the first half of the season. Now it’s often up to Rozier or Ball to create something out of nothing in the half-court offense.
Rozier knows this. He scored a career-high 43 points against New Orleans May 9, in a game the Hornets by all rights should have won against the Zion-less Pelicans. Afterward, he spoke about the way he is being defended in all Hornets games.
“They just ramp up the pressure, key in on me, try to make me pass, stuff like that,” Rozier said. Then, he added: “When we get fully healthy, it will be tougher for teams to do that. We’ll be more unpredictable.”
If that sounds like Rozier misses Hayward, he certainly does. Hayward’s presence takes pressure off Rozier.
But there’s no Hayward right now. There is just Rozier, a couple of aging centers and a whole lot of youngsters who have talent but know nothing about how an NBA postseason game feels.
“He’s going to help lead these young guys into battle,” Borrego said of Rozier.
And the only real way to win the battle will be if Rozier plays beautifully.