Hornets will get much-needed rest after a rough road swing heading into the new year

By Chase Whitney

December 21, 2021

Photo: Rick Bowmer / AP

The Hornets have slowly but surely worked their way out of the grips of the NBA’s healthy and safety protocols as the team is in the midst of its longest road trip of the season. LaMelo Ball, Jalen McDaniels, Mason Plumlee and Terry Rozier have all returned or have been cleared to return in the coming days. It couldn’t have come sooner with the team having dropped nine out of the last 12 games. Here’s what’s been going on with the Hornets.

Week in review

Let’s go back to the Kings game on December 10, the first stop on Charlotte’s six-game road trip. De’Aaron Fox put up 31 points but missed the game-tying free throws as James Bouknight exploded for 24 points and six rebounds on 6-8 from long-range within days of being inserted into the rotation for the first time. Miles Bridges, Gordon Hayward, Cody Martin and Kelly Oubre Jr. all turned in 19-plus points in the one-point win. PJ Washington and Nick Richards both missed the game with non-Covid related illnesses, vaulting Vernon Carey Jr. into the starting lineup for the fifth time in his career and the first time this season.

The Hornets had a chance to steal a win in Dallas against the Luka Doncic-less Mavericks, but a flat start and 37 first-quarter points by the Mavs buried them from the get-go. Rozier had 20 points on 8-14 shooting in his first game back after clearing health and safety protocols and Hayward put up 17 points, six rebounds and six assists. No other players had enough of an impact on the game to make the team competitive in this one, and the Hornets fell to the Mavericks 120-96. 

Plumlee and McDaniels returned to the lineup as Hayward put on an absolute masterclass in San Antonio, scoring 41 points in 29 minutes on 15-19 from the floor and allowing himself a rest in the fourth quarter as Charlotte cruised to victory 131-115. Bridges had 19 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, displaying continued growth as a playmaker and second option in the Hornets offense. Washington posted 12 points, nine boards and a career-high seven assists while McDaniels added 15 points and 10 rebounds in his return.

The Hornets finally got LaMelo Ball and Ish Smith back from health and safety protocols in Portland. An 81-point first half from the Trail Blazers put Charlotte in a massive hole, but Ball’s 27 points, five rebounds and four assists helped the Hornets make a game out of it in the second half with Washington adding 16 points on 4-8 from downtown. Damian Lillard’s season-high 43 points on 12-19 shooting, including 6-11 from 3-point range and 13-14 from the line, helped snap Portland’s seven-game skid.

The Hornets defense (ranked 30th) allowed Phoenix to get out to a 22-point halftime lead as the Suns scored 69 points in the first 24 minutes in Devin Booker’s return from a seven-game absence. Booker had 16 points, six rebounds and five assists in the blowout win for the Suns, who had nine players in double-figures led by JaVale McGee’s 19 points and seven boards on 9-10 shooting. Miles Bridges tallied 26 points, 5 rebounds and two steals while Oubre added 18 points and five boards. Martin entered health and safety protocols just a few hours before gametime, further weakening the Hornets’ defense.

For the first time since this road trip began, a weak defense wasn’t the biggest factor in the Hornets’ performance. The Jazz are the league’s best offense (116.8 offensive rating) and Charlotte’s defense held them below their average of 115.4– unfortunately, the Hornets shooters went cold for most of the first half and finished the game at 34.9 percent (15-43) from three-point range. The Hornets outscored the Jazz by three in the second half and briefly held a lead in the fourth but it wasn’t enough. Ball and Bridges each had 21 points on 8-20 shooting with Bridges grabbing 11 rebounds and Ball tallying six boards and 11 assists. Rozier posted 20 points, six rebounds and four assists on 4-10 from distance. Hayward sat this game out with “lower back discomfort”– likely code for “rest” for the 31-year-old, who is currently fourth in the NBA in total minutes played.

What’s ahead for the Hornets?

The Hornets end their Western swing in Denver on December 23 just in time for the holidays and return home for a matchup with Houston on December 27 before heading out for a one-game trip to Indiana in their last game before the new year.

Nikola Jokić is in the midst of another MVP-caliber season. He leads the Nuggets in points (26.3), rebounds (13.5), assists (7.5), steals (1.3), and blocks (0.7) while shooting 59 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from deep (4.4 3-point attempts per game). He’s playing the best defense of his career and has six triple-doubles already, four of which have come in December. The Joker has only gotten better since Michael Porter Jr. was ruled out for the season. 

Houston’s overtime win over the Hornets in late-November was the second of seven-straight for the Rockets, who have gone 9-5 overall since ending a 15-game skid. With road games in Indiana and Milwaukee before finishing up in Charlotte, the Rockets could be reeling by the time the Hornets get ahold of them. Both Jalen Green (hamstring) and Kevin Porter Jr. (thigh) are on pace to return from injury by the December 27 matchup.

Charlotte will travel to Indiana for game three of the four-game series between the Hornets and Pacers this season. All signs point to the Pacers front office breaking up their team in some way this season, which is not typically an environment conducive to winning. The Pacers are 13-18 right now and despite Malcolm Brodgon, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis all playing well, they’re one of the worst teams in the East and seem to lack a sense of identity.

What to watch for as the Hornets close out 2021

As soon as the Hornets got a host of players back from health and safety protocols, Martin entered and Hayward was awarded a night off after topping the 40-minute mark three times in four days earlier in the month. Thankfully, this six-game road trip comes to a close soon, and as the calendar turns to 2022 we’ll be seeing the Hornets at Spectrum Center more often. Six of the next 10 and 13 of the next 20 games are in Charlotte. The Hornets have played 33 games so far (more than any team in the league), so reduced travel and increased rest are well-earned and much-needed.

The countdown begins. The All-Star game is February 20 in Cleveland, which means it’s time to start campaigning for LaMelo Ball to be named an All-Star in his second season. Ball leads Charlotte with 19.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 8.2 assists (seventh in the NBA) and 1.8 steals (eighth in the NBA) per game while hitting 39.1 percent of his 7.3 (3-point attempts per game), ranking 14th in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage at 43.1 percent on 3.8 attempts per game. All-Star voting opens on Christmas Day, and something tells me the electric 6-foot-6 point guard with 7.6 million Instagram followers will be a popular vote-getter. 

Check out the remaining 2021-22 Charlotte Hornets schedule.

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