Charlotte hosted the NBA’s All-Star Weekend festivities in mid-February, and it appears that no one told the hometown Hornets that the league has resumed play.
The Hornets were three games below .500 at the break and holding onto seventh place in the Eastern Conference playoff race, with a slight edge over Orlando, Detroit and Miami.
A win over the 24-35 Wizards in their first game after the break put the Hornets a game behind Brooklyn for the sixth spot. They had the chance to even their record and pull into a dead heat with the Nets in their next game, which would be the second in a stretch of seven home games out of eight.
Since then, not much has gone right for Charlotte. At press time, the Hornets were in ninth place, on the outside looking in when it comes to playoff positioning. The team is five games below .500 and looking up at Detroit and Orlando.
The team’s skid began with a two-point loss to Brooklyn at home, where the team missed an opportunity to hit the .500 mark and catch the Nets. The Hornets fell behind by 14 early, trailed by as much as 19, then stormed back and led in the game’s final minute until D’Angelo Russell hit a go-ahead three with 39 seconds left.
Charlotte’s Kemba Walker missed two potential go-ahead threes in the final half-minute, including one that was blocked at the buzzer. Walker and coach James Borrego expressed doubt that the block was clean, but the result was a tough loss for the Hornets.
“We didn’t come out with the right urgency, the right focus tonight,” Borrego said, “but I was proud of our effort to get back in that game. We battled and we’ll continue to battle.”
Still, the team was left kicking itself over a missed opportunity.
“I think the hardest thing is trying to put this one behind you,” Marvin Williams said. “We played well enough to win that game too. It’s disappointing, man. It’s going to be a tough night.”
The team seemed to feel a hangover, dropping a second straight home game, this one by 11 to Golden State, two nights later.
Cody Zeller led the Hornets with a career night, hitting 13 of 14 shots for 28 points, but the two-time defending NBA champions had too much firepower, pulling away in the second quarter and never allowing the Hornets to cut the lead to less than five afterward.
The Hornets then hosted another Western Conference playoff team in Houston, taking a seven-point lead into the half on the strength of a 28-6 run. The Hornets came back to pull in front, and Walker missed a potential game-tying three with 16 seconds left in what became a five-point loss.
“We’re asking a lot of him,” Borrego said of Walker, “and if it comes down to the stretch, that’s how it goes, but he’s battling. He’s giving us everything he has out there.”
Since the All-Star break, Walker has averaged 26.7 points per game, more than a point and a half above his season average.
The Hornets hit the road and found an elusive win, topping the Nets in Brooklyn. But a return home — and another game with a Western Conference contender — put Charlotte back in its tailspin.
The Hornets fell behind by 15 early against Portland, and a rally brought them close in another near-miss loss.
“I don’t have an answer for you,” Borrego said. “We’ll keep digging looking at it and keep challenging our group. We just have to keep digging through it, keep looking at it and keep addressing it.”
Charlotte now has work to do if it wants to get back into the playoff hunt in the final 19 games. The next two games, home against sub-.500 Miami and Washington, give the team the chance to right the ship before it travels to Eastern Conference leader Milwaukee and then takes a trip to Houston.
“I think at this point in the season there’s a lot of games that we wish we would have had, so we can’t look back at anything,” Williams said. “You just have to focus on what’s in front of you right now. We don’t’ have many left, but we do have a lot of work to do.”