The Charlotte Hornets had themselves a lost weekend at the worst possible time.
Twice they looked like they could win. That they should win. That they would win.
And twice they lost heartbreakers, including a 115-110 defeat at the hands of the Washington Wizards Sunday afternoon in which the Hornets led by 11 points beginning the fourth quarter before disintegrating.
Is the season over? Not quite, but it almost certainly will be soon. Charlotte looks like a team that just doesn’t have it anymore.
The Hornets will stumble into the NBA’s inaugural play-in tournament Tuesday night having lost their final five games of the regular season. They will be seeded No. 10.
Charlotte would need to win twice in a row this week on the road — at Indiana Tuesday night (6:30 pm TNT), and then at the loser of the Boston/Washington game Thursday — to get the “honor” of playing the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the actual NBA playoffs.
The 76ers are the worst matchup the Hornets could have imagined in the playoffs, as Charlotte has no answer to Joel Embiid. So even if the Hornets do somehow get to open that playoff door, there’s an avalanche awaiting them on the other side.
It’s a real mess, and the Hornets brought it on themselves by going 0-5 down the stretch. The only good news is that if the Hornets do fail to advance out of the play-in tournament they drop back into the familiar ground of the NBA lottery, where at least they have a shot at getting another great player.
Charlotte also went 3-9 over its final 12 games of the season. That clutch gene they had early in the season disappeared. Charlotte guard Terry Rozier said Sunday after the game that the Hornets were “too predictable” in late-game situations now.
What exactly did he mean?
“I’ll leave it at that,” said Rozier said, who was obviously still seething about the weekend’s results.
Charlotte coach James Borrego said that any postseason experience was good experience for his young core, even though the weekend’s results were painful.
“You can’t cry about this,” Borrego said. “You don’t mope. We move forward. We’ve just got to play better… If you watch ‘The Last Dance’ documentary, our owner (Michael Jordan), he had to go through this. He had to find ways to overcome and get better.”
The Hornets actually got a number of good shots in the fourth quarter against the Wizards Sunday; they just couldn’t make anything when it mattered. Charlotte was a horrid 1-for-10 from three-point range in the fourth quarter, and I’d say at least eight of those 10 were open looks off a series of good passes. Charlotte was 27-2 entering the fourth quarter with a lead until Sunday; now the Hornets are 27-3.
None of Sunday’s misses on their own, though, were quite as costly than Devonte Graham’s wide-open shot that would have won Saturday’s game vs. the New York Knicks in regulation. Instead, Graham clanked it, the Hornets got blistered in overtime, and then Sunday happened.
Charlotte ended up getting outscored 36-20 in the fourth quarter Sunday by Washington. A win either Saturday or Sunday would have put Charlotte in the No. 8 spot in the play-in tournament. Instead, Washington grabbed that far preferable position.
The Hornets announced on Saturday they would increase the Spectrum Center capacity for their postseason home games to 12,000. But now it looks like there aren’t going to be any postseason home games at all.
Charlotte’s season turned on its axis on April 2nd, when Hornets forward Gordon Hayward went down with a right foot sprain against Indiana. It was hoped that Hayward could return in a month or so. But Hayward — Charlotte’s highest-paid player, and until that moment its best — has yet to play again. The Hornets were 25-23 when he went down and in position for the No. 4 playoff seed. They ended up 33-39, at No. 10.
A miraculous Hayward recovery for this week sure would be nice, but there seems to be no chance that will happen. Signing Hayward to that enormous $120-million deal was always a risk due to his age and injury history; the Hornets will likely be very careful.
So it will likely be the current group against Indiana Tuesday night, and the current group just hasn’t been getting it done. The fact that players like LaMelo Ball, Graham, Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington and Jalen McDaniels are all getting to feel the intensity is a good thing, sure. The experience may pay off at some point. Ball, for one, was a lot better Sunday than he was Saturday.
But right now, the Hornets look like a team with enough effort but not quite enough talent or chutzpah.
If the Hornets survive Tuesday night, I’ll be surprised.
If they also survive Thursday night, I’ll be absolutely stunned.