ATLANTA — The doors hadn’t even popped open on the Charlotte Hornets’ charter buses yet Sunday afternoon and it was evident this wasn’t going to be a fun evening in the very place their season burned into a pile of ashes back in April.
Missing three key players will do that, particularly when two-thirds of those absences represent the starting backcourt and feature their All-Star point guard and the team’s leading scorer. But Steve Clifford wasn’t about to tie a white pillowcase to a stick and start waiving it around in the moments leading up to tipoff against Atlanta at State Farm Arena.
“It’s hard, but I think it just gives other guys opportunities,” the Hornets coach said. “You can mix and match. And I’ll say this: You can always win in this league. This is what’s different to me with pro players, too. Even in college. When you’re down like our roster, could we beat them in a seven-game series? No.
“But can we win tonight? Yes, I mean that’s just the way it is. A guy gets hot … The challenge in this league is playing well night after night. But all these guys are good enough to come out and have a good night. So you never know.”
Consider Clifford prescient. Riding the 13th-most points scored through three quarters in franchise history, the Hornets upended the Hawks 126-109.
Here’s what we learned in Hornets’ second victory of the season:
Suggesting it’s been a long week for James Bouknight would be a mild understatement.
Following his arrest for driving while impaired, which came on the heels of a rough preseason in which he struggled mightily, the second-year guard couldn’t get anything to fall in his first two games. He misfired on his initial 10 shots of season and clanked all seven 3-point attempts.
But it finally clicked for Bouknight against the Hawks.
Using a trip to the free-throw line to get himself going and score his first points of the season in the first quarter, Bouknight played well off the bench. He led the Hornets with 10 points through halftime and finished with 10 points, two assists and a rebound in 18 minutes to cap a productive performance he needed badly to keep him in a good head space.
“I really feel like he’s getting there,” Clifford said. “I think he’s focused right know and I think he knows that he can play better. And again, on the other side of it he’s bit an inexperienced player. He hasn’t played a lot of minutes yet. He’s still young, he’s still trying to figure the NBA out. I like the player that he can become.”
DSJ more than OK
With the Hornets’ top two point guards out, Clifford turned to Dennis Smith Jr. and gave him the starting nod. And the Fayetteville native didn’t let him down.
Smith Jr. once again played under control and looked sharp. He efficiently ran the offense and totaled 18 points, 6 assists, 3 steals and 2 rebounds. But more impressively, he was clutch in the fourth quarter.
Smith Jr. accounted for 84.6% of the team’s points through the initial 8:26 of the fourth quarter, being directly responsible for 4 points, 3 assists, and 7 points created from assists to help the Hornets hold off the Hawks.
Way too hands on
Fouls were problematic for the Hornets in their loss to New Orleans two nights earlier, and they killed their momentum late in the fourth quarter once they trimmed the Pelicans’ game-long lead to two points with several calls for reaching in.
They didn’t do a great job of cleaning that up in their matchup with the Hawks, either.
Atlanta had 20 trips to the free-throw line in the first half alone, taking complete advantage of the Hornets being unable to keep their hands and fingers to themselves.
PJ Washington, Jalen McDaniels and Bouknight each collected three fouls and had to take their respective seats until the second half.
Things were better later in the game Sunday, but overall, the Hornets committed 24 fouls and sent Atlanta to the free-throw line 28 times.