CHAPEL HILL — Winning for the first time as an NBA head coach wasn’t any big deal for the Charlotte Hornets’ James Borrego.
Friday’s 104-97 victory against the Boston Celtics at the Smith Center was only an exhibition game, after all. So the result didn’t mean much in the context of preparing his team for the long regular season to come.
It sure seemed to mean something to the young players Borrego put out onto the court for the majority of the second half. Led by second year pro Dwayne Bacon and recent draft choices Miles Bridges and Devonte Graham, the Hornets overcame a 15-point halftime deficit to get their new era off to a promising start.
“They wanted to win that game,” Borrego said of the reserves that helped outscore the Celtics 59-37 over the final two periods. “They showed a lot of pride on the defensive end, they got rebounds, got stops, pushed the pace. That’s how we want to play. So a really good job by the young group to close out the game.”
Bridges, a first-rounder from Michigan State who came to Charlotte in a draft day trade with the Los Angeles Clippers, made the most conspicuous impression with a pair of thunderous dunks on the way to scoring all seven of his points in the fourth quarter.
Bacon scored eight of his 11 points during a second half in which his team was plus-15 with him in the game.
When it came to caring about the final score, though, no one on the Hornets seemed more motivated to hold the Celtics off than Graham.
The Raleigh native, playing in the Triangle for the first time since his days at Broughton High School, was effective on both ends of the court while playing the entire fourth quarter. Graham scored all five of his points in the period and made a key 3-pointer during a late 9-0 run that catapulted his team from a one-point deficit to a 104-96 lead with less than a minute to play.
“We got the win,” said Graham, a second round pick of the Atlanta Hawks who also came to Charlotte in a draft day trade. “We’re just trying to grow as a team.”
With All-Star Kemba Walker and newly acquired veteran Tony Parker figuring to get most of the minutes as the Hornets’ primary ballhandler, Graham figures to spend most of the season playing on the team’s G-League affiliate in Greensboro.
His performance Friday, however, should go a long way toward giving Borrego confidence in him if and when his services are needed. It also made for a happy homecoming, with a large number of family members and friends among the 18,081 in attendance only a short drive from his home.
“West Virginia is the closest I’ve played (since high school),” Graham said. “That’s about 5½ hours. I grew up a Tar Heel fan and my family was Tar Heel fans until I went to Kansas, so playing in this being able to play in this building was great.”
It was just as good for fellow Hornet Marvin Williams, who took particular pride in the outcome since UNC didn’t lose a home game on its way to the 2004-05 national championship, his only college season with the Tar Heels.
“Tonight was really fun to go back out there,” Williams said. “I was telling the guys in the locker room that I’m still undefeated in this building.”
Williams finished with five points and five rebounds in 21 minutes of action in the preseason opener. He was one of seven Hornets to hit at least one 3-pointer. Jeremy Lamb led the way with three treys and 15 points.
Charlotte attempted 36 3-pointers in the game, a product of Borrego’s emphasis on making the perimeter game more of a weapon for the Hornets than it has been in the past.
“We got some good looks at three,” Borrego said. “We had some good ones in the first half, too. They just didn’t go down. We’re trending the right way with the 3-point line. We’re getting good looks, we’re spacing the floor. Give our guys credit. They shot the ball well (in the second half).”
Former Duke star Jayson Tatum had eight points and five rebounds for the Celtics while another one-and-done Blue Devil, point guard Kyrie Irving, finished with nine points and three assists in his first game back from a knee injury that forced him to miss last season’s playoffs.