(Written by David Walters)
LAST WEEKS ACTION…
An injury riddled Charlotte team (15-24) has been riding Kemba Walker’s hot hand during a five game win streak that has left the once reeling Hornets only two games out of the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
A few of the wins have been against teams that are dragging along in the doldrums of the league (Orlando, Boston, and New York) but the quality wins against New Orleans and Toronto stand out because of the way Charlotte was able to hold off late charges by both teams. The NBA is typically a game of runs, and the Hornets have shown a penchant this season for coughing up late leads. These games show that this team can pull together to withstand a late game push and ideally it will serve as a confidence boost for a team that sorely needed one.
Walker has averaged 30.2 points, 6 rebounds and 4.8 assists per outing during the streak while shooting an efficient 49.5% from the field and 40% from long range. Injuries to multiple Hornets players, including Lance Stephenson’s lingering groin issue, and more recently Al Jefferson, Cody Zeller and P.J. Hairston, has opened up the lane and an opportunity for Kemba to be the focal point of Charlotte’s offensive attack.
Over the past couple of weeks Walker has come up huge for the Hornets, hitting clutch shots, a game winner and also setting a career high in scoring with 42 points on December 27th against the Magic. He has put this team on his back while doing his best Allen Iverson impression along the way.
Walker isn’t the only guard getting into the groove for Charlotte though; Gerald Henderson has gotten in on the action as well, averaging 15.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game in the first six games of the year, including a season high 31 points against Toronto on January 8th. While Hendo is no world-beater, he does provide a steady hand and a veteran presence next to Walker in the backcourt.
WHAT TO MAKE OF THE PAST WEEK…
It seems that the Hornets are starting to find their way despite the common theme of injuries that started in training camp and have continued to plague this team throughout the season. The afore mentioned Walker and Henderson haven’t gotten Charlotte through this alone as someone has managed to step up each game to help the team find a way to compete.
MKG has played well since returning from a nagging foot injury and has averaged a double double with 11.3 points and 10.3 rebounds through six games so far in 2015, and Zeller has further developed into the energy player that the Hornets expected when they drafted him. But from Brain Roberts becoming more confident on the floor to Hairston matching a career high off the bench against New York to a very strong performance by Bismack Biyombo who is filling in for an injured Big Al, the Hornets depth has pulled through despite the rotating door in the training room.
Lance Stephenson looks to work his way back into the rotation at some point during the next week, possibly even as soon as the Spurs game. He has missed the last 14 games and the Hornets have found chemistry without Lance in the lineup. It will be interesting to see in what capacity coach Clifford brings Lance back and more importantly, it remains to be seen whether or not he will be a good fit with this Charlotte roster, with rumblings of him having problems meshing with the other players in the locker room.
Hopefully the Hornets can ride their momentum into a favorable four game home stand over the next week. The first matchup will really test the Hornets meddle when the San Antonio Spurs come to Charlotte for their lone visit to the Hive. The Spurs are going to be on the second game of a back-to-back after playing in Washington the night before. This could work out in the Hornets favor, as Spurs coach Greg Popovich has no problem resting his players in back-to-back situations.
The Spurs have had a few injury issues this season but they have continued to play at a high level as usual, ranking in the top ten in most offensive categories while also ranking 12th in defensive efficiency. Starters Tim Duncan (age) and Tony Parker (hamstring) will most likely play limited minutes and forward Kawhi Leonard will miss the game as he has been out with a hand injury; but that doesn’t mean that the Spurs lack offensive firepower. Guard Patty Mills recently returned to San Antonio’s lineup, and he scorched Charlotte last year in a 32-point performance; he and guards Cory Joseph and Danny Green can provide their share of offense when given the opportunity. You can bet that this will be a tough matchup, but it’s also a game that could amount to a heat check for a hot Hornets team coming off several days rest.
Next up on Saturday, the Pacers come to the Hive for their second matchup against the Hornets, ironically on Lance Stephenson bobblehead night (you can be certain Lance wants to be in the lineup for this one). Indiana has had a rough season so far after losing their budding superstar Paul George to an offseason leg injury. While they continue to be inept on offense, ranking near the bottom of the league in most categories, they are second in points allowed on defense and they continue to be a top rebounding team.
The Pacers, who will also come to Charlotte on the second game of a back-to-back, have also pulled it together recently and are just ahead of the Hornets as they race to grab onto a playoff spot. Starting point guard George Hill has been out with a groin injury so that may open up some more opportunities for Walker to operate but he will have to contend with 7’2” center Roy Hibbert in the paint. This will be the second time these teams meet this season; the Hornets lost the last matchup, 86-88, on a last second Solomon Hill tip-in.
Then on Monday, the Hornets will face a reeling Minnesota Timberwolves team for a 2:00 matinee matchup for MLK Day. The Timberwolves have been decimated by injuries this season, a seemingly common theme for most teams this year, and they haven’t won a game since December 10th. This is a team that was shaped this offseason through the Kevin Love trade and they sport a young roster featuring talented rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach Lavine.
Minnesota ranks low across the board in most categories and they play the way you would expect of a team that is headed up by such a youth movement. This is as winnable a game as the Hornets will see this season, making it a real trap game for Charlotte. The Hornets will need to pounce on the Wolves early to set the tempo, and hopefully they will be able to chalk this one up as a victory.
The last game of the Hornets weeklong home stretch will be next Wednesday against Chris Bosh and the Heat. While Miami has retained their defensive intensity post-LeBron, they have been anemic in all other phases of the game, ranking in the bottom of teams in rebounding and offensive efficiency. Bosh started the season very strong and, although he has cooled off just a bit, he typically has big games against Charlotte. How the Hornets plan to handle him defensively will be key to the outcome of this game.
Of course they still have Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng on the wings but after that, there is a steep drop off in the level of a team that dominated the league over the past four seasons. This will be the third time these teams have met this season; they have split the season series 1-1, with the Hornets dropping their last meeting, 93-94, after a late game collapse.
There are definitely some winnable games coming up this week for the Hornets as they continue to climb their way back into the playoff picture. Realistically, I see the potential for Charlotte to come out 4-0 or at least 3-1 during this weeklong home stand with a favorable schedule and no back-to-back games. Either way, this sure has been a fun team to watch as of late. Enjoy the ride Hornets fans and, until next time, KEEP BUZZING!
you can follow David W. Walters @Original_DWade.