Three sides to the story: the Hornets’ loss to the Suns

Games like Monday night are unusually frustrating. It is presumed that one will experience emotions fueled with passionate anger and discontentment. That’s expected. Simultaneously, one needs to think big picture. What are the intentions of this organization? Keep your honest expectations (before the season) in mind. The Charlotte Hornets are focused on player development, grooming their young core for long-term prosperity. On the path of progression comes bumps in the road with loads of head-scratching moments – like failing to box out a free-throw shooter in the final minute of a tight game.

Keeping your eyes fixed on the grand prize is essential for your mental health as we often get mixed up in the recent frustrations of this Hornets team. Progression is not linear – may I say it again – so short-comings are inevitable. They are necessary for growth.

There’s always more to a game than the box score portrays. The ebbs and flows of an NBA contest are monstrous. If you have kept up with the Hornets this season, you can rightfully attest to that. Last night’s game against the Phoenix Suns was the embodiment of a 2019 Hornets game. It encompassed everything that makes Hornets’ fans bite their nails, along with sending glimmers of hope, before ripping your heart out after a late-game meltdown.

Three Key Struggles

The Hornets have struggled in three major phases this season: turnovers, starting halves, and maintaining 4th quarter leads. Last night all three of those ailments were blatantly present. Charlotte started the game with nine first-quarter turnovers, were down by 20 at halftime, eventually pulled into a 104-97 lead with 1:11 remaining, before the Suns closed the game on a 12-0 run to win 109-104.

James Borrego’s glaring frustration was rightfully merited. This team has continued to struggle in the same three phases of the game through this season’s 22 games. The Hornets deserve credit for battling back from a large deficit – positive for a young team. In the same breath, an NBA game is 48 minutes. You have to close out.

Bismack Biyombo shared similar thoughts as his coach, unveiling his frustration following the game’s conclusion. He added that there were some bright spots to take out of the loss. “It’s just frustrating losing in general. Not starting [the game] off the right way did not help,” Biyombo said. “We played with a lot more urgency in the second half. Going down 20 at the half and then coming back to be up 7 with one minute to go speaks a lot about the character of our guys.”

There are three sides to the story of Monday night’s matchup between the Charlotte Hornets and the Phoenix Suns. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Starting games: where Charlotte continues to dig themselves a hole

The Hornets’ starts to games has been their Achilles heel as of late. They headed into the halftime break down 59-39, committing 15 first-half turnovers, 9 occurring in the first quarter. On the other hand, Phoenix had just three turnovers.

The lack of energy from the Hornets was visibly clear, getting torched on easy drives to the basket along with Phoenix hitting on backdoor cuts to the rim for easy buckets. At the other end of the floor, the Hornets did not help themselves. Making ill-advised passes into traffic, resulting in Phoenix stealing the ball ending in easy buckets. Charlotte did not do themselves any favors. 

“At some point, at some level, we have to take ownership for how we start games. Unfortunately, we aren’t there right now,” James Borrego said postgame. “We go through the motions in the first half. We wait until we are down 15 or 20 until we decide we are going to play the right way – play with some urgency, play like professionals. It’s their job to play for 48 minutes.”

NBA games are 48 minutes. That’s a well-known issue with a young team. They go through spurts of high energy basketball but then can get off track at the snap of a finger, spiraling downward. Turnovers don’t ease the pain of slow starts. The team has to get into the proper habits to kickstart games with the precise energy needed to go into the break, at least with a manageable deficit. Coming back following a 20-point deficit at the half is not a recipe for success. 

Marvin Williams had the same concerns postgame, unable to grasp why the team is unable to start games off at the appropriate pace. “I think that’s the big question around here. It feels like we never really play as hard as we can until we get down five, ten, fifteen, and then the fight comes out,” Williams said. “If we just start the game – the starting unit and the second unit – if you bring that same urgency as we play with when we get down 15, it’d be interesting to see where you’re at in the third or fourth quarter.”

James Borrego has spoken about his “four pillars” innumerable times since September. One of his pillars is establishing winning habits. Postgame, Borrego emphasized that establishing your team’s presence and setting them up for a win has to start right from the tip. The habits he is looking for in the first half include having the necessary presence, urgency, and competitiveness (another one of his pillars).

With a young team, bringing that energy from the get-go is an area of the game that arises with growth. Having a starting lineup that includes a rookie, two sophomores, and a guy in Terry Rozier who has never been a full-time starter in the NBA illuminates why this team has had trouble starting games. They lack the proper experience to know what it takes to begin games. You could potentially see a shift in the starting lineup, bringing in a veteran like Marvin Williams who has the experience and presence to help jumpstart the game for this young inexperienced Hornets team.

Battling back 

The Hornets lit a match under them to start the second half, entering the third period trailing by 20, responding with a sharp 3rd quarter. Charlotte started the half 9-16 from the field, going 9-9 from the free-throw line. They outscored the Suns by 13, heading into the 4th down by just seven.

With a minute left in the 4th, the Hornets found themselves with a 7-point lead. Despite blowing that late-game lead, the team displayed their grit and persevered. They were led by their vet, Marvin Williams, who scored a season-high 22-points, 19 being in the second half.

Marvin Williams has continued to contribute in bunches in the second half of games. He went a perfect 10-10 from the free-throw line, adding to the Hornets’ 21-26 stat line for the night. Williams’ poise and leadership he brings to this young team are invaluable. James Borrego even credited Williams to being this team’s rock. He’s not wrong.

“It was just another great performance by Marvin. He’s just a pro, a winner, a competitor, and I’m really proud of his effort and what he does for our ball club,” Borrego said, praising his team’s highly coveted veteran. “He’s a rock for us, he’s a force out there. We’re blessed to have him on this team.”

Young teams struggle in many phases of the game. One particular area you often notice with teams stocked full of youth is the inability to battle back after inheriting a massive deficit. Charlotte has trailed by double-digits in a majority of their games this season. Despite their numerous flaws, they do not crumble after bad halves when trailing by double-digits. They have an unmistakable gear that they shift into, able to overcome large debts in a matter of minutes.

It’s positive to see a team not roll over and give up. Subsequently, you don’t like to see a team blow the lead they fought so hard to get back. Or just starting games with such a porous effort and subpar execution. It’s two sides to the same coin. James Borrego expressed those same sentiments, shining a light on the fact that you have to put together a full game in order to be successful in this league.

“We are a team that keeps competing and fighting. I like that about our group. But to be a consistently good team in this league, you have to play for 48 minutes. Even if the shots aren’t going, you compete and play hard for 48 minutes,” Borrego said. “Look, at halftime, we made a few adjustments. We executed our offense, we got better looks and played with more urgency on both ends of the floor. On defense we got some stops and put ourselves in a position to win another game; we just did not execute down the stretch.”

A careless mistake down the stretch

The peaks and valleys of this team within games is something we have witnessed various times throughout the year. Cody Zeller described the course of events from this game superbly, calling it a “roller-coaster ride,” clarifying that the turnovers put them in a dangerous spot. The team battled in the second half, giving themselves a chance to win a game that they should have won. “The wheels just fell off at the end,” Zeller said.

As previously mentioned, the Hornets led 104-97 with 1:11 remaining in the fourth. This is where things got ugly. The Hornets were their own worst enemy, unable to pull through late in the game, failing to do the simplest of things. i.e. boxing out a free-throw shooter in the game’s final minute.

Former Hornet, Frank Kaminsky, got an and-one and missed his free throw. Charlotte then failed to box him out, allowing Kaminsky to get his own miss leading to a Kelly Oubre Jr. three-pointer. The Hornets led 104-102. On the possession directly following, Oubre Jr. blocked Biyombo and went down to sink the go-ahead three-pointer at the other end, resulting in four Phoenix free throws to ice the game.

Some would say youth is an issue late in games, but Monday’s contest was a bit different. The tide shifted in Phoenix’s favor due to the Hornets failing to box out the free-throw shooter. An inexcusable mistake according to James Borrego that has nothing to do with youth. “I’m not going to put this one on youth. We know our job on a free throw box out. I don’t care if you’re 18, 20, or 40 years old out there. You know what you’re supposed to do,” a frustrated Borrego rightly explained.

“We are going to have to learn from a close game loss here and the details to go win a game. A free-throw rebound. That’s frustrating to watch. We allowed a free throw shooter to get a rebound. That’s inexcusable. That’s on us. We own it, we learn from it, we move forward.”

As the Hornets are well-aware of by now, the NBA is a long season. They have witnessed their fair share of game-winners, their own meltdowns down the stretch, along with their own game-winners and comebacks. This team understands they are capable of coming back from down 20 points. In one-possession games this season, the Hornets are 6-2, something not heard of with a team with this much youth.

Bismack Biyombo was disappointed following his team’s defeat but is aware of what they need to do to fix their mistakes. The Hornets have improved and are making the necessary strides on the upward path of progression. It takes losses to learn, but Biyombo still sees the improvement. “Now we just have to figure out the right way to start. We have guys that are capable of doing so. We’re continuing to get better and improve… We are moving in the right direction.”