Put injury concerns aside — for now. LaMelo Ball returns for Hornets’ wild win vs. Minnesota

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LaMelo Ball’s pesky right ankle didn’t keep him out too long this time.

The Charlotte Hornets’ star point guard returned from a one-game absence, was back in the starting lineup and looked good in their 128-125 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Target Center in Minneapolis on Monday night. Ball tweaked his troublesome ankle — the same one he had season-ending surgery on last March — in the Hornets’ win over San Antonio on Friday, but shrugged the injury off afterward when asked about it.

However, his ankle was tender enough for him to miss Saturday night’s loss to Philadelphia, raising concerns he could be out for an extended period again just four games into his return after already being sidelined for 20 games. So, even though they were scorched by Minnesota big man Karl-Anthony Towns to the tune of 62 points, having Ball back gave the Hornets a bit of an emotional boost — a necessity for a team searching for something positive to grasp onto after dropping 17 of its past 20 outings.

Ball didn’t appear to show any ill effects against Minnesota, finishing four rebounds shy of a triple-double. His 18 points, 13 assists, six rebounds and three steals ignited the Hornets, fueling their second-half surge.

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (1) dribbles against Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert (27) in the fourth quarter at Target Center.
Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (1) dribbles against Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert (27) in the fourth quarter at Target Center.

He picked up right where he left off. In the four previous games following his Jan. 12 return in San Antonio, Ball averaged 26.5 points, 6.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.3 steals. He entered the night ranked fifth in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring at 8.2 points, and his 1.4 3-pointers he connects on in the fourth quarter led the NBA. He’s also third in the league in fourth-quarter assists, distributing 2.4 per game.

Ball is getting to the free-throw line frequently, too. The 31 he attempted in his four games preceding their victory over the Timberwolves represent the most in any four-game stretch of his three-plus seasons. Additionally, the 13 steals he recorded tied for the second-most in any four-game span of his career.

He’s doing it all, which is why the Hornets need him to stay healthy. They’re just not the same without him and their chances of winning increase exponentially when he’s available.

Here’s what the Hornets (10-31) had to say about their wild win:

On the Hornets’ second-half comeback

“(Got it) to 15 I believe (at the end of the third quarter),” coach Steve Clifford said. “That’s doable versus if it was 24 or something like that, it’s not. So, that at least gave us a chance. Realistically, 15 points is not a lot. It’s just not. But our defense was a lot better in the fourth quarter and we scored.”

On what stuck out most

“Fourth-quarter play,” Clifford said. “Whatever we were down on the road. We were plus-18 in the fourth, our defense was really good. And our offense, they’re the best defensive team in the league and we scored 36 in the fourth. So, it was a good 12 minutes of basketball.”

Charlotte Hornets forward Brandon Miller (24) dunks against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the third quarter at Target Center.
Charlotte Hornets forward Brandon Miller (24) dunks against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the third quarter at Target Center.

On Brandon Miller

“He’s playing great and tonight he would have had more but he got in foul trouble,” Clifford said, “which limited his minutes frankly because once we were within five or six in the first half we couldn’t put him back in. But he played great and he also made two threes against the zone where we were kind of teetering (at) 14, 15 (points behind Minnesota). But he makes big shots.” Miller finished with 27 points, just behind Miles Bridges’ 28 points.

On beating the top defense in the league

“I feel like it’s going to be a turning point,” Bridges said. “They’re the No. 1 in the West, top defense in the league. That just shows that if we do the right things, then we can win against anybody. So, I feel like it’s a turning point for us. They’re a great team, they’re going to do great things in the playoffs. So, we’re trying to get to where they’re at.”

On Leaky Black’s key minutes

“Well, he’s smart, he has size,” Clifford said. “Whatever we do in practice, he’s on top of. He got his chance in the first half. He did a good job and then we just put him in there defensively at the end of the game.”

On Karl-Anthony Towns scoring 62 points

“Well, listen he was 8-for-8 for 3s early and he was great,” Clifford said. “And we were not locked into at all to what we were supposed to be doing. We did better in the second half. You give a guy like him open shots like that … There’s missed coverages, just not being aware enough, and he got going. We were better , particularly with the game on the line.

“The same play that he hit the threes on was the same thing that beat us in Charlotte (in the first meeting). There, we were close. Tonight, in the first half we weren’t even close.”

Bridges said: “I feel like it’s tough for him because he’s having a great night and you want to win that game. But at the same time, it’s a team game. So, we had to spoil his night a little bit. KAT is a great player, but it was our win, it was our night.”