Hornets’ Ball posts triple-double, makes NBA record books

Feb 15, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (1) stands on the court during the first half against the San Antonio Spurs at Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 15, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (1) stands on the court during the first half against the San Antonio Spurs at Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

No one could be blamed for scurrying out of the building Wednesday night considering the circumstances at this juncture of the NBA calendar.

But truly, there was no actual need to exit into the streets of Uptown early on given the Charlotte Hornets were immersed in another Victor Wembanyama Bowl, leading to easily the sparsest crowd of the season at Spectrum Center. Perhaps it was fitting the Hornets played San Antonio, the same team they were matched up with on opening night in October.

Because they were banged up then and faced a similar situation again on Wednesday with Terry Rozier a late scratch due to a sprained right hand, forcing him to sit out the Hornets’ 120-110 win over the Spurs that sent them into the All-Star break on a positive note.

“It’s really good for us,” said Dennis Smith Jr., who started in Rozier’s place. “We are finally … Well, I can’t even say that we are getting healthy. Right when we started getting healthy, everybody started falling back again. It’s good for us. We know we can compete. We know we can win games, and we protected home court. So, I think that’s major for the fans as well.”

Getting overly excited about the Hornets (17-43) taking down a team that’s now lost 14 in a row and is essentially neck-and-neck with Charlotte among the league’s cellar-dwellers is hard to do. Still, at least they punctuated their final performance before a six-day respite with LaMelo Ball’s ninth career triple-double and a career block party highlighted by Mark Williams and Nick Richards.

Ball posted 28 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, becoming the second-youngest player in NBA history to record 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in his career.

“Who’s first? Bron?” Ball said, referring to Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James. “Yeah, that’s crazy. That (guy) is like top 3 in everything, top 5. That’s crazy. I don’t really trip off of that stuff. I just go out and play, just try to get win after win.”

While racking up record after record. It’s rapidly become a part of Ball’s makeup.

“He is an ultra-talented player for sure,” Hornets veteran Gordon Hayward said. “Obviously, great vision. He’s all over the court. Just his ability to rebound on both sides of the floor. … He’s got a special ability of being in the right place at the right time, and guys like Russ Westbrook have that same knack where you look up and they almost have 10 rebounds.

“He’s obviously a great player already and hopefully he will continue to grow into an even better one.”

Besides sparking Ball’s heroics, the Hornets’ latest nagging ailment allowed one of their youngest contributors to gain some needed experience. And at a position he’s not overly used to playing.

JT Thor assumed the sixth-man role for one night at least against the Spurs, logging time at small forward in the process. He’s considered more of a power forward, but at this point any action will greatly benefit him. Hornets coach Steve Clifford made sure to point some things out to Thor on a couple of occasions while the second-year, 6-foot-9 lanky big man was on the bench, giving him instructions he’s sure Thor will pick up.

“He’s very bright, and he has a great attitude,” Clifford said. “And he has a great attitude. He’s 20. He’s not playing a lot because we need PJ (Washington) on the floor. When we are playing, even with this group right here, we have some minutes where we are super limited offensively. Just in number of guys who can create and score. So, JT’s not playing as much. He’s playing less minutes and it’s hard to play.”

Thor’s only averaging 10.8 minutes per game, by far the lowest of any of the Hornets’ reserves. To put that in perspective, the only player who’s logging fewer seconds on the floor is seldom-used Kai Jones. Even James Bouknight’s 13.8 per game are better — and he hasn’t played since Jan 4., a span of 11 outings.

But Thor has remained an integral piece of Clifford’s rotation. Save for the recently traded Jalen McDaniels, no key reserve has appeared in more games than Thor’s 47.

“And every time I go and say I appreciate it, I love your attitude,” Clifford said, “he’s always like, ‘Look, I love being out there.’ One day he said, ‘I know this isn’t about me.’ But he’s one of our best workers, he’s one of our best technical defenders. He knows what’s going on.

“It’s just a situation, but he handles it really maturely and that’s a big part of this, too. He’s into the team. He does get to play every night, which is a big deal. I mean, he’s 20 years old. But he appreciates it, and he’s taken advantage of it.”

Kind of like what the Hornets need to do as a whole over the season’s final two months once they resume play next Friday in Minnesota. Blocking out the noise externally isn’t going to be easy, though. Particularly with the odds of possibly landing Wembanyana, the French phenom GM Mitch Kupchak was coy about watching in action in Europe last week, potentially decreasing with each victory.

That’s the only real choice the Hornets have this side of stuffing cotton balls in their ears and whistling to ignore the outside chatter, instead focusing in on what’s happening around them.

“Well, the first thing you do, you don’t care what anybody wants,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “That’s not part of the equation. They can want all they want. It’s about starting at the very bottom and not skipping steps. It’s about teaching them individually what it takes to be in the NBA, develop their skills and then teach them how it fits with the team and how to play with each other.

“So what other people think isn’t important at all.”

Popovich has known Clifford for a long time and thinks he’s the perfect person to get things going for the Hornets as they build around Ball and their youth.

“He’s a coach that’s really well-respected by other coaches,” Popovich said. “He’s solid, knows what he’s doing, and a good man. The injuries have really hurt the progress that he wanted to make, but he knows exactly what needs to be done. He’s honest, he’s straightforward. There’s no games, there’s no smoke or anything like that.

“He just gets right after it and does what he knows will work. But you got to have the healthy bodies to get it done. That’s just all there is to it.”

Clifford has a pretty good engine in Ball, and the Hornets’ star point guard is excited to pick things back up again following the break.

“I feel like we needed this win big,” Ball said, “just to have our minds right, go home and just be home on a good note, and not home with an ‘L’ and everybody is like, ‘Man.’ So, the fact we got this win, we can go home, be happy and hopefully we come back and just get more momentum and actually some more wins.”

Roderick Boone joined the Observer in September 2021 to cover the Charlotte Hornets and NBA. In his more than two decades of writing about the world of sports, he’s chronicled everything from high school rodeo to a major league baseball no-hitter to the Super Bowl to the Finals. The Long Island native has deep North Carolina roots and enjoys watching “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” endlessly.
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