The Charlotte Hornets returned to Earth Monday night, losing a winnable game against Boston, 140-129, in overtime.
But Charlotte (3-1) also looked capable in the loss of trading punches with one of the Eastern Conference’s better teams, and that was a positive sign for a Charlotte squad that continues to generate early-season buzz.
“This team has fight,” Hornets coach James Borrego said afterward. “Obviously, this team belongs. We’re not backing down from anybody. We’re not going anywhere.”
After a four-game, early-season sample, I’d agree. The Hornets, who next play at Orlando (1-3) Wednesday, look more capable and deeper than the NBA team we are used to seeing around here.
Charlotte, which had started 3-0 for what was somehow the first time in franchise history, did blow some chances at the end Monday to go 4-0. The most notable came when — tied at 122-all in regulation — Charlotte couldn’t get the ball inbounds on a pass from Gordon Hayward to LaMelo Ball with 11.3 seconds to go and instead managed to get it stolen by Marcus Smart.
Boston didn’t make a last shot then, either. But the Celtics dominated in overtime, scoring the game’s final 14 points as the Hornets ran out of gas before a home crowd of 17,238.
Let’s point out that crowd number again — 17,238. On a Monday.
Yes, several thousand were Boston fans. But most of them were Hornets supporters. Spectrum Center hardly ever has a crowd like that unless it’s a Friday or Saturday night. LaMelo is a headliner who keeps drawing more people inside the big tent — a few thousand seemed to have on his No. 2 jersey, too.
The Hornets’ marquee player continues to play well, keeping Charlotte in this one several times. He had 25 points and 9 assists, with 21 of the 25 points coming on his seven three-pointers. He also threw an 80-foot strike to Hayward for a layup, the kind of dime that Sam Darnold can only dream of pulling out of his pocket right now. That extraordinary assist drew the biggest cheer of the night.
But Ball also fouled out of his first NBA game, committing a couple of totally avoidable infractions. He didn’t make a two-point shot and also didn’t present Hayward a good target on that last in-bounds play, where he should have gone into the backcourt to ensure the pass’s success.
Then again, if Borrego hadn’t taken a timeout to call a play, the Hornets could have gotten a shot in rhythm on that final possession of regulation.
Said Ball afterward: “We never want to lose, but sometimes you’ve got to look at it and take lessons from the L.”
Charlotte led 114-102 with 6:06 to play, but that’s an eternity in the NBA, especially against a Boston team that boasts both Jayson Tatum (41 points) and Jaylen Brown (30). Brown posterized Miles Bridges on a late dunk, and Tatum was the best player on the floor.
The Hornets saw their 12-point lead fritter away in a hurry in an entertaining game that included 28 lead changes.
Borrego was angry about an inexplicable delay of game call on center Mason Plumlee after Plumlee’s dunk with 4:30 to go in regulation. He barely touched the ball after coming down. That did seem like a poor call.
But in the long term, I’d also be concerned that more teams are going to employ the “Hack-A-Mason” strategy when trying to catch up.
Boston used it to good effect during its comeback, purposely fouling Plumlee, who is a career 57% foul shooter but has made only 26.7% from the stripe so far this season. Plumlee was 2-for-6 from the line in the game Monday, where every point counted.
“(We) took some fouls on Plumlee and tried to break their rhythm,” Boston coach Ime Udoka said afterward.
Still, there were a lot of good things for the Hornets Monday, who had both standout guard Terry Rozier and sixth man P.J. Washington out due to injury. Bridges continued his early tear, with 25 points and 10 rebounds. Bridges and Ball have been Charlotte’s two best players so far.
Charlotte also made 19 three-pointers (as did Boston). Kelly Oubre Jr. continues to provide scoring help, and veteran point guard Ish Smith is a solid replacement when Ball is taking a break. The Hornets do need more from Hayward — whose plus-minus was a minus-23 Monday — but that should come.
Unlike the Carolina Panthers, the Hornets are a professional team in Charlotte that can score big on any given night. Charlotte’s talent is better than it has been in the past five years.
The Hornets look like a postseason team so far, and that would be a big deal for a franchise who hasn’t made the true NBA postseason (last year’s play-in game really doesn’t count) since 2016.
The Boston loss was the first of many defeats for the Hornets in an 82-game season, but they’re going to win more than they lose. As Borrego said, these Hornets truly don’t look like they’re going anywhere.
Except, eventually, to the playoffs.