The rack full of basketballs hadn’t been rolled out yet and not a single person sauntered through the Spectrum Center turnstiles.
Hours prior to the Charlotte Hornets game unfolded Friday night, Cody Martin knew the deal. Their four-game winning streak, loaded with a pair of impressive victories over Milwaukee and one in Philadelphia, was supposed to have their juices flowing and put them in the proper mentality leading into their meeting with a team that had lost 10 straight.
“A game like this to me is kind of bigger than the last few games just because it is easy to kind of relax and go into it and say, ‘We won three really, really good games,’” Martin said. “Obviously, had a tough road game and had two really good home games. So I think a game like this shows how mature our team is. So we’ve just got to make sure we go into it with the right focus, and the right mindset and take care of business.”
That’s what made their 116-109 loss to the Magic in front of a crowd of 16,011 such a head-scratcher.
Rather than feasting on the Eastern Conference’s cellar dwellers and building on the positive developments of the past week, the Hornets (23-20) found out in frustrating fashion the difficulty attached to simply showing up and thinking they can out-will a seemingly inferior opponent.
They learned a valuable lesson toying with Orlando.
“Just getting up for every game,” Miles Bridges said. “We could easily get up for the Warriors or Bucks, the Nets game. But when we play these types of teams, we got to be able to get up and approach the game the same way. That shows a sign of maturity and that’s not what we did.”
They fizzled out by putting up a meager 12 points in the fourth quarter — two desperation 3-pointers by the Hornets in the waning seconds were inconsequential and padded the final figure — and couldn’t come close to pounding Orlando into submission. The largest lead they mustered against the Magic, a team that had tasted victory just seven times prior to their date with the Hornets, was eight points.
Not exerting the same kind of energy level throughout that had them bouncing around the court with Philadelphia and Milwaukee proved costly.
“I feel like that’s where it started right there,” LaMelo Ball said. “(When) we feel like we should beat a team, I feel like we should just take everybody the same. Come in, do the same stuff and try to get the win instead of looking down on people like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re supposed to win this one.’ People probably eased up. Just stay on it.”
Those highlight-reel plays by Bridges and Ball blowing up on social media and making the viral rounds were cool and all, especially the sick between-the-legs pass Ball threw to Bridges on an uncontested fastbreak alley-oop ignited by a steal from the 20-year-old point guard. The sequence on the Hornets’ ensuing possession when Ball left Cole Anthony flying by him on a crossover, making it appear Anthony was ice skating and ready to do a figure eight, left people in a frenzy, too.
Sparkling gems like that were rare, though, because their defensive effort wasn’t sustainably good enough to thwart the Magic. Surrendering 50 points in the paint to a team that’s not very tall up front, allowing 30 of 38 attempts in the paint to be converted and watching Orlando go 25-for-31 at the rim was inexcusable.
Same goes for getting clobbered 53-22 in bench production and yielding 26 points to Magic reserve Mo Wagner, which was the second-highest output in his career. Whenever the Hornets thought they were primed to deliver a knockout blow, it got blocked.
Exactly the opposite of how things went down against the Bucks and 76ers.
“Yeah, for sure,” Bridges said. “Those guys came out, played hard, punched us in the mouth. Did all the little things and got all the 50-50 balls and we didn’t. In the previous games, we were getting all the 50-50 balls, talking on defense, every rebound. And we didn’t do that.”
Consider it a teachable moment, something the Hornets can look back on weeks and months from now. That’s their hope anyway. Because they were nothing like the version of themselves that gave up an average of 103.5 points in their previous four outings, holding their opponents under the century mark twice.
“We’ve got to learn from it, we’ve got to grow from it,” coach James Borrego said. “Obviously, we’re not mature enough to handle the success of the last few games. And I knew it. These are the games as a coach you worry about and you can warn the guys, but we’ve got to go out there and bring the action and then believe and fight behind it. And obviously we didn’t have enough of that tonight. We didn’t lay down. We didn’t have enough fight. They just had more fight than us.”