The fans of the Charlotte Hornets exist in a peculiar sort of purgatory, one that stems from the team having not made the playoffs since 2016 and having not won an NBA playoff series since 2002.
They want to “Bee-lieve,” as the team’s marketing department implores them to, that this season will finally be different. And it has had more positive signs than most. But still, in games like Sunday’s 105-101 home loss to Atlanta, the word “almost” too often drapes itself around the Hornets like an albatross.
Charlotte overcame a horrible start and all of an early 17-point deficit to actually lead by 10 in the fourth quarter. The Hornets also got arguably the best dunk of the season during that final quarter, courtesy of Miles Bridges using Atlanta big man Clint Capela like a nail on a remarkable hammer dunk. Bridges called it one of his top-three NBA dunks ever, and it brought LaMelo Ball leaping off the bench in joy.
And yet the Hawks came all the way back as the Hornets went ice cold late. Atlanta was down 99-94 after Bridges’ massive slam with 3:47 to go, but the Hawks were undeterred, scoring 11 of the game’s final 13 points to win.
The COVID-limited crowd of 4,148 fans filed out of the Spectrum Center silently, and you could sense the communal regret in giving up a gorgeous Sunday afternoon to watch this near-miss.
What you could also sense throughout the afternoon, though, was hope.
The Hornets (27-25) are still firmly inside the playoff hunt, sitting at No. 5 in the Eastern Conference after the game ended. They have gone 7-4 in the 11 games since standout rookie point guard Ball broke his wrist, which is a testament to teamwork and improvisation.
The Hornets were without Gordon Hayward and Malik Monk for this game, too, although to be fair Atlanta (29-25 and now fourth in the East) was without Trae Young, John Collins and Danilo Gallinari.
So it was one of those kinds of NBA games that the Hornets have often won this season — a scrapfest, fueled not so much by stars as by hustle. This time it didn’t work out, as the Hornets allowed too many open shots late and Terry Rozier couldn’t hit a corner 3 with 7.0 seconds left and Charlotte down by two (Rozier thought he was fouled on the shot, but no call came).
“We just made silly mistakes, and we usually don’t make those mistakes,” said Bridges, who led the Hornets on Sunday with 23 points.
Especially now that both Ball and Hayward are out of the lineup for at least the next several weeks, Charlotte is a team that has to win with grit, not grandiosity. They have been great this year at holding leads — they were 22-0 in games entering the fourth quarter with a lead, until Sunday happened.
“Had a 10-point lead there in the fourth quarter, we just couldn’t close it out,” Hornets coach James Borrego said tersely afterward.
The Hornets have 20 games left in this truncated regular season, starting with a Tuesday night home game against the L.A. Lakers (likely without both LeBron James and Anthony Davis).
The regular season ends May 16, so Charlotte is now in an all-out sprint in the race to the playoffs. The Hornets keep getting people hurt, too. P.J. Washington went out of this game in the third quarter with an ankle sprain and didn’t return.
It’s not easy, but it was never going to be easy. Every NBA team is dealing with several different injuries right now. That’s always the way it is. The way the Hornets managed to go 4-2 on a road trip just concluded speaks to their resilience.
But then they gave one of those games back Sunday, despite all the good that happened.
This is a Charlotte team that will be asked the question “Are you the same old Hornets?” for the rest of the season — and beyond that, if the Hornets can’t win a playoff series. That’s purgatory, and right now that’s where the Hornets — and their fans — still reside.