The Charlotte Hornets faced a midseason test this week, and they passed with flying colors.
It was the end of a tough West Coast road swing, and the Hornets were a disappointing 1-4 with losses at the Nuggets, Clippers, Blazers and Kings.
Behind 33 points and five assists from Kemba Walker, however, the Hornets finished the trip on a positive note, beating the Spurs by 15 in San Antonio. Charlotte then returned home and knocked off the Kings in a rematch, winning by 19.
Prior to the next home game, two days later, head coach James Borrego threw down the gauntlet for his team.
“On that six-game road trip, the goal was to come out of that trip better as a team and as a unit, bonded together,” he said. “We did that. We validated that in San Antonio with a win on the road. We validated that in our last game, against Sacramento. The challenge for this group now is can we do it a third time, or will we be complacent? Will we be OK with two wins and just relax tonight? We haven’t put together three, four, five wins consistently.”
The Hornets responded, knocking off the Suns, 135-115, recording a season-high in points.
It continued what has been an encouraging start to the year for a Hornets team looking to return to the postseason for the first time since 2015-16. The Hornets currently cling to the eighth spot, with a two-game edge over the Pistons and Wizards. Charlotte is two games out of the sixth spot.
Much like the winning streak, Borrego is happy with the team’s first-half performance but far from satisfied.
“As a coach, you can’t really deal in the outside world — what are people thinking? That’s just not my focus,” he said. “My focus is this team. I know this team. I know where we want to go. Do we wish we had more wins than we have right now? Yes.”
The Hornets are led by point guard Waker, the North State Journal’s 2018 Athlete of the Year. Already a two-time all-star and the franchise’s all-time scoring leader, Walker is having a breakout season in his eighth year.
Walker leads the team in scoring with a career-high 25.0 points per game, good for 12th in the league. He’s also the team leader in assists at 5.6 per game, steals at 1.2 and 3-pointers, with a career-best 3.2. His 149 long-range shots on the year rank fifth in the NBA, and he is among the league leaders in minutes played, steals and free throws.
In his seventh season, Jeremy Lamb has blossomed into a reliable second option for Charlotte. Lamb has hiked his scoring average by more than two points per game, to a career-high 15.1, to go with a career-best rebounding average of 5.6.
Flanking Walker and Lamb are a strong group of veterans showing they still have plenty left in the tank. Offseason pickup Tony Parker, age 36, and former Tar Heel Marvin Williams, 32, have both improved their scoring after drop-offs last season. Thirty-year-old Nicolas Batum is also contributing 8.9 points, 3.4 assists and 5.2 boards a night.
Center Cody Zeller was having a promising season, as well, hiking his scoring by two points, to 9.3, to go with 6.2 rebounds and a career-high 2.1 assists. He’s been sidelined with a hand injury, but Borrego is hopeful to get him back soon.
“He’s doing well,” the coach said. “He’s back with the team now, on the (West Coast) road trip. Hopefully, we’re a couple weeks away — no setbacks, in great shape. When he comes back we’ll be an even better team.”
While the starting lineup has impressed, the strength of the Hornets may be the team’s bench, led by Parker.
“We trust our bench,” Borrego said. “We’re very deep. We like our depth. When Cody gets back, we’ll even become a deeper team.”
In his second season, Malik Monk has taken a step forward, improving his scoring average by 3½ points, to 10.2, and improving his shooting percentage, which still needs work, by 36 points. He’s the team’s third-leading scorer.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (7.9 points, 4.6 rebounds), Willy Hernangomez (7.7 and 5.7) also pace Charlotte’s second unit.
The Hornets have gotten themselves into position to make the postseason, but they still have work to do.
“If the playoffs started today, would we be in? Yes,” Borrego said. “This team is getting better, though. That’s my challenge right now. That’s all I focus on, day-to-day. Are we getting better? Are we growing?”