The winless Hornets welcoming the undefeated Brooklyn Nets to Charlotte on the second night of a back-to-back seemed as predetermined an outcome as there had been early in the 2020-21 NBA regular season.
Charlotte had battled but ultimately fallen to two teams expected to be in the lottery this season while Brooklyn had blasted each team placed in front of them, winning by 26 against the Warriors and 28 against Boston.
But Sunday served as the latest reminder as to why games aren’t played out on paper in the league. The Nets never found their footing, Charlotte avoided lulls on offensive end that cost them in previous games and by the time Brooklyn woke up late in the fourth quarter, it was a lead too large to surmount as Charlotte won 106-104.
“It’s just how the NBA works, right?” Hornets forward Gordon Hayward said. “Like I think we drop our first two, we’re playing Brooklyn on a back-to-back this is one where you can see us losing out and away. But we fought tonight, I thought it was great by us to fight, to compete. Just a great win, one that we can certainly build on. Brooklyn’s an unbelievable team. You can see it. They’re an unbelievable team and certainly are going to give teams fits but I think it was just a good win by us.”
The Hornets largely just hung around in the opening half, never falling behind by more than five points and trailing just 50-48 at the half. It allowed the Hornets time to adjust and eventually make a run in the third, outscoring the Nets by seven to lead 82-77 at the break.
The death blow, though, came to open the fourth at the hands of Gordon Hayward. The marquee signing of the offseason knocked down a trio of mid-range jumpers and capped off a 12-4 run to open the frame with a corner three-pointer after Devonte’ Graham buried one of his own, putting the hosts up 94-81.
“He gives us calm and poise out there and I think you saw that tonight,” head coach James Borrego said. “He settles us when we need a good possession, a solid possession, an efficient possession. He’s able to create that. I wasn’t calling a lot of plays. for him. I did call a number for him. But the ball continued to find him just through our motion, our side to side ball movement, and he made plays from there.
“I just give all our guys a ton of credit for moving the ball, sharing the ball, playing the right way. Gordon was a big part of that. He made big shots for us. He made big plays. He’s a playmaker and he’s a real calming force for us.
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant did all they could in the fourth to drag Brooklyn back and the latter had a look to tie the game from the baseline with 10 seconds left. His shot rolled off the rim, though, and Terry Rozier iced the game with a pair of free throws.
‘This gives us a big jolt, obviously,” Borrego said. “It’s a big game for us to get that first (win) against a championship-caliber organization and team. I’m just proud of our guys. I mean, they’ve been busting their tail all this time. I know it hasn’t gone our way and as we said this morning and shoot around this thing is going to turn and it can turn in one game.
“My expectation though is now this is the bar for us. This is how we have to play against every team,” he continued. “We’ve been hammering the defense the last couple of days and to hold this team to 102 (points), I think they’ve scored 123, 125 (points) the last two games. The defensive effort was fantastic tonight for 48 (minutes). That’s the standard for us.”
The Hornets will have a long break by the standards of this compacted regular season with two days off before traveling to Dallas on Wednesday. The Mavericks set an NBA record on Sunday with the largest halftime lead – 50 points – in league history against the Clippers, winning 124-73.
“I don’t think in this league you have any room to dwell on any of the past or even gloat on some of the past, too,” Hayward said. “Like, certainly, you saw what Dallas did today. I mean, we’re going to have our hands full going in there. So, we can’t celebrate the win tonight for too long. I think certainly we build on it, take the good things from it and try to apply them in the next game.
“But we got another tough one coming and we have to keep trying to focus on our growth, getting better and I think if we try to just improve ourselves individually, ourselves as a team, the results will take care of themselves.”
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