Hornets stuck in neutral as injuries keep piling up

Charlotte has dropped to 13th in the Eastern Conference standings

Center Nick Richards and the Hornets saw their record fall to 6-15 on the season after a 140-105 blowout loss in Boston on Monday. (Steven Senne / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — Just when the Charlotte Hornets seem to be finally taking flight, gravity keeps bringing them back down to earth.

The Hornets (6-15) recently posted their first back-to-back wins of the season, finally showing signs of life after an injury-filled start to their 2022-23 campaign.

“It’s a great mood booster for sure. We just have to continue to learn,” Kelly Oubre Jr. said after Charlotte’s 110-108 home win over Minnesota on Nov. 25. “Now it’s time for us to put the right step forward, learn from our losses and our mistakes, and learn how to win. The more you win, the more you can continue to just do the same things that you did to win the game before.”

“We’re figuring out how to play,” added P.J. Washington, who had 19 points in a 107-101 home win against Philadelphia. “The game we just played and the game before obviously are two things we can look at and grow from and continue to do. We played to our strengths, and if we keep doing that, it’s gonna be hard for teams to beat us.”

Just three days later, the Hornets were demolished by Boston in a 140-105 road loss in which Jayson Tatum scored 35 points and Marcus Smart had a career-high 15 assists.

The contest was over almost as soon as it began. The Celtics led by as many as 27 points less than 10 minutes into the game and finished with 24 3-pointers in what became a runaway of a victory, nearly setting a Hornets franchise record for most points allowed in a regulation game.

As it has been all season, injuries slowed Charlotte in the loss. The shorthanded Hornets were without Terry Rozier (illness), LaMelo Ball (ankle), Gordon Hayward (shoulder), Cody Martin (knee) and Dennis Smith Jr. (ankle) in Boston.

Role players like Kai Jones, Jalen McDaniels and Theo Maledon have been pushed into bigger roles. Jones has proven to be a capable rebounder, while McDaniels has shown an ability to score at the rim or with the long ball, notching a team-high (and season-high) 24 points against Boston.

“We’re a team that’s more than capable of consistently out-rebounding guys,” Jones said. “That’s something we have to continue to put an emphasis on because we have an athletic locker room and we have all the length in the world.”

Charlotte’s is likely to improve once the team starts getting back some of its top players. Rozier is set to return for the Hornets’ matchup at home against Washington on Dec. 2, while Ball and Smith should return later in the month.

Martin may not see the court until January depending on how he recovers from an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee.

Hayward’s injury situation appears to be a bit more complicated. The 32-year-old, who has played just 104 games in two-plus seasons in Charlotte due to a variety of ailments, is out indefinitely with a fractured shoulder blade and will be evaluated on a week-to-week basis. That same shoulder forced Hayward out for eight games in early November.

Hayward’s wife, Robyn, took to social media recently to express her dissatisfaction with the way the Hornets have handled her husband’s injury: “I’m over them not protecting players. Just was talking with a young player’s mom, and she was saying the same thing.”

Hayward’s shoulder injury had initially been diagnosed as a contusion, but the official status was later updated to a fractured scapula.

While history has shown that the Hornets are a much better team with Hayward on the court rather than off it, the team will have to make do with what it has for now.

“We know we are missing a lot of players, so it makes it good that, ‘OK, we’ve got guys coming back,’” McDaniels said of his team’s lack of depth. “It’s next man up. We just have to go out there and play hard. We are all good enough to play in the league, good enough with the guys that we’ve got to get a win. We’ve just got to go out there and put in more effort.”