Hornets’ starting five finally fully intact, giving Charlotte hope after win over Lakers

Leaning on a wall outside the visitor’s locker room, Gordon Hayward was still processing the rare double feat that’s frequently slipped through the grasp of the Charlotte Hornets.

As unfathomable and incomprehensible as it may be, Friday night’s matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers represented just the first time the Hornets’ starting five was fully intact for the whole game all season. Terry Rozier’s return following a two-game absence nursing a right hip pointer meant they had the game-opening unit together again, allowing the Hornets to actually have the firepower to withstand a late charge by LeBron James & Co. and hold on for a 134-130 win at Crypto.com Arena.

“Certainly, I think it’s been a rough season for us injury-wise, guys going down,” Hayward said. “I think it’s going to take some time, too, for us to find a little rhythm just playing with each other and rotations, all that stuff. But it’s definitely been a tough streak for us with the injuries.”

If someone would have told Steve Clifford months ago when he took the job that he would have his starting five available only once by the time Christmas rolled around, he probably would have laughed uncontrollably. Or uncomfortably. But that’s precisely how things have gone down for the coach during these past three months.

No one can believe it’s taken 31 games for the Hornets’ starting five to collectively heal.

“It’s insane, but I’m glad we are all back on the court,” PJ Washington said. “It feels good. We came out and did what we are supposed to do. So, I’m glad everybody is back.”

This was how the Hornets (9-24) drew it up when they were looking ahead to the 2022-23 campaign, thinking they had more than enough offensive firepower to get it done on a nightly basis. They matched their season high in points, had all five starters crack double figures and didn’t rely solely on one individual to carry them on their shoulders.

A 69.6% showing in the second quarter was the best shooting display in a quarter this season and they nearly reached the century mark in points through three quarters, heading into the fourth with 97. The Hornets averaged 110.6 points leading into their date with Los Angeles, ranking 25th in the league.

For one night at least, the Hornets looked like the unit they were constructed to be. Closing out the Lakers gives them hope. And the Hornets need as much of that as they can get after already accumulating a pair of eight-game losing streaks.

“It means we can beat anybody playing the way we are playing,” Washington said. “So it’s just coming out and being aggressive each and every night and playing with each other. We’ve got some guys that can put the ball in the rim at a very high clip, so we are a talented team.

“Everybody can score. So when you’ve got guys out there that can shoot the ball, that can pass the ball, that can do pretty much everything on the court, it’s always going to be tough.”

In the decisive quarter, Washington had two impressive dunks in a matter of three possessions. LaMelo Ball drained a couple of big buckets. Rozier knocked down a pair of clutch shots. Mason Plumlee tossed in a layup. Hayward netted both of his attempts, including the game-winning putback.

The Hornets’ bench was productive, too, in part because the reserves like Kelly Oubre and Jalen McDaniels slid back into their expected roles almost effortlessly. Oubre’s 19-point offensive boost fueled them on various possessions and he’s excelling already in his sixth man role..

“I feel like everyone can get it off the bounce, dribble, shoot, score,” Ball said. “So with everybody (together), it’s real tough.”

That’s why their confidence didn’t wane much even when the Lakers made their late charge.

“We’ve got a lot of players that can score,” Rozier said. “We’ve got a lot of talented players. Defense is going to win us the games. We are going to be able to score over 100 points on any given night. So, we’ve just got to pick it up on the defensive end and clean that up.”

The Hornets’ newfound ability to light up the scoreboard creates opportunities for people like Hayward to fly under the radar the way he did against the Lakers in the closing seconds, when he collected a huge offensive rebound that led to the game-winning shot. Los Angeles was keying in on others and Hayward happily slipped through the cracks, becoming open when none of the Lakers boxed out to keep him off the glass.

That gaffe allowed Hayward to toss in just the seventh career go-ahead field goal in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime of his career.

“We’ve got a lot of weapons, man,” Hayward said. “A lot of guys that can score and that can really go, too. Not just double digits, we have a lot of guys that can go for 30 or 40. We’ve got to figure out how to still share the basketball and get everyone good looks, but certainly at the end there, just making a play, I had Dennis (Schröder) on me and my advantage with him is inside. And I was able to get the rebound and put it back in.”

If the Hornets are going to make up any ground and climb out of the hole they’ve dug, staying healthy is paramount. As is proper patience.

They’re still in a learning phase and have to strike a balance between finding tangible improvement while also doing whatever they can to emerge victorious in as many games as possible.

“Obviously, it’s going to take some time,” Rozier said. “We haven’t been playing together all year and we are looking to get everybody back. So, over time things are going to work out how we want it. We are just all happy to have guys back.”

This story was originally published December 24, 2022 4:45 AM.

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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