The Lowdown, Volume IV: 'He's a winner'
LaMelo Ball's fourth-quarter steadiness paces Hornets. Plus, what's gotten into Malik Monk? Breaking down the second-half schedule and how long before Charlotte may start welcoming fans
They were about to start their most lengthy road excursion of the season when James Borrego was asked how he viewed the upcoming stretch the Hornets were embarking on.
“I look it as a great opportunity here for our guys to grow together, to be together,” the coach said. “I love being on the road. I think this group understands it’s (an) us-versus-the-world mentality, this is all we’ve got. And I love it. Our guys play hard and aggressively and it’s going got bond us, it’s going to unite us on and off the floor. So I think this is an important trip for us.
“I don’t know what the win-loss record will look like after six games, but more than anything I want to come out of these six games a tighter group and a better team.”
Wednesday night may have a hand in making that come to fruition. And the Hornets have their prized rookie to partially thank for keeping them afloat and solidifying their league-leading standing among clutch-time team performers.
Showing plenty of calm and reining in the youthful exuberance that can occasionally translate into costly, untimely mistakes, LaMelo Ball’s play in the closing minutes was the precise prescription necessary to pull out a 124-121 victory over Phoenix, which just so happens to be one of the hottest teams in the league.
In the latest display filled with dizzying passes, long-distance shooting, and drives and dunks, Ball posted 20 points, eight assists and four rebounds. Ball was especially key in the fourth quarter, knocking down 3 of 5 attempts and effectively running the offense efficiently. The steady growth remains apparent a mere 31 games into his career.
“He's a winner,” Borrego said. “He makes winning plays. That's the best way I can put it. He makes winning plays. Fourth quarter, made plays on the offensive end, got to the rim. Kick outs. Big shots, big free throws. And then having those defensive moments. Whether it’s on the boards, getting a steal, those are all to me winning plays. And that’s why he’s a winning player. He impacts the game throughout 48 minutes, but at times he’s at his best in the fourth quarter. He’s not fazed by the moment. He’s poised and I think our team feels that confidence, especially down the stretch.”
You’ll get no argument from Malik Monk.
“It’s Melo,” Monk said. “Melo just finds everybody. He just finds you at the right time. The pass isn’t late. He’ll turn it over every now and then, but he’s going to find you for the most part.”
Phoenix was the latest to find that out firsthand.
“Our team should be very proud of this win,” Borrego said. “Not comfortable or satisfied by it, but they should be proud. … And it should only validate what we are doing as a program. Our player development. Our offense. Our defense. Our identity, our culture. This is a defining win for us. But this is not about being satisfied. We’ve got a lot of games to play. We can get a lot better throughout the season.”
He had a cool down on the heels of a hot start once he was re-inserted into the rotation, but it seems like Malik Monk is trending upward again.
After pouring in 29 against the Suns, Monk has topped 20 points in three of his last four outings. Given Devonte’ Graham remained sidelined and was still working his way back from the discomfort he’s experiencing in his left knee patella femoral, the Hornets have needed an extra spark from someone other than Terry Rozier or Gordon Hayward.
Monk has been up to the task. He established a new career high for points in a half with 20 against Phoenix, even rattling off 18 straight points during one stretch to provide them with a huge momentum boost following Phoenix seizing early control.
“With Tae out somebody has got to step up in every game,” Monk said. “And whoever is stepping up, we are going to find who it is. That’s us being a team and that’s us maturing, too, knowing that the next man has to step up when somebody goes out.”
Monk’s display beyond the arc has been breathtaking at times this season. He’s canned 15 of his last 31 attempts, yet another indicator of how he’s impressively increased his 3-point percentage this season. The 47.3 percent clip he’s nailing them at through 18 games is up from the 33.6 percent he shot in his first three seasons.
“I just grew up, man, if I’m being honest,” said Monk, who’s averaging a shade below 12 points per game. “I just grew up and started taking film seriously. I started taking everything seriously. A couple of years ago, last year, year before that I wouldn’t touch the ball for four or five times and I would shoot a bad shot. And that’s when my percentages go down. Now I get to the rim, find somebody, the ball is going to come back to me if I make the right play. Get fouled, get to the line. Just stuff like that. I just grew up. That’s the biggest part.”
And he’s really sure of himself now. In a good way.
“Every game, every chance I get on the court,” Monk said, “I get a bigger (amount of) confidence and bigger chip on my shoulder. So it’s going to take time. It’s still going to take time. So I’ve just got to continue to watch film and do what I do.”
Don’t expect much down time for the Hornets beginning in mid March.
As they near the end of the first portion of their schedule, Charlotte finally now knows what its facing over the season’s final three months. The NBA released the second half of its slate on Wednesday and the Hornets open their post All-Star break March 11 when they host Detroit.
That matchup tips off a stretch of 32 games in just over two full calendar months for the Hornets, culminating with their May 16 tilt versus Washington.
“Well, it’s a dense schedule,” Borrego said. “There’s a lot of games condensed into a short amount of time. So it’s going to be a great challenge. Not just for us — for every team in the league. Not a lot of nights off. We’re going to have to be smart with how we manage our players’ bodies, their minds, their rest. Not a lot of practice time. We are going to have to learn through games, through film, through walkthroughs. But that’s our season. Our guys are ready for it.”
Among the things of note regarding the schedule:
They’ll say cheese for a national television audience twice: in Brooklyn on April 1 on TNT and at home versus old friend Kemba Walker and Boston on April 25 in an early-afternoon contest on ESPN.
There are seven sets of back-to-back games, with the bad news being four of those come away from home.
Not many cupcakes here: they play some of the league’s upper echelon of teams twice. Such as Milwaukee, Boston, Los Angeles as well as the LA Clippers.
There are a pair of five-game road trips.
Their longest home stand spans five games.
They only have two days in between games twice, meaning they will be playing essentially every other day in the same fashion they’ve been doing the last month-plus — save for the unexpected health and safety protocol breaks.
May 9 should be interesting and not just because it represents the second annual Brothers Ball. But it will serve as Zion Williamson’s pro debut in the Carolinas. Remember, the South Carolina native was hurt when New Orleans made its lone visit to Charlotte last season.
With Gov. Roy Cooper’s announcement on Wednesday saying arenas and sporting venues can host fans up to 15 percent capacity, it’s only a matter of time before some are going to finally get the opportunity to do what they’ve been hoping for since November.
That would be venturing to Uptown to see a Hornets’ game in person.
Potentially, that could happen as soon as the next time they take the floor at home in the aforementioned second-half opener next month. Up to roughly 3,000 fans could be in scattered throughout stands. Whatever the eventual tally is, it would be a welcomed thing for the Hornets, who’ve experienced playing in front of public gatherings in several games on the road already.
Obviously, having fans inside Spectrum Center provides a completely different environment. One, in fact, that could possibly benefit a team comprised of mostly twentysomethings.
“Very excited about that,” Borrego said. “I think it’s great for our guys. A young team. An exciting, fun, young team. They deserve to have fans in their arena and it’s nobody’s fault. That’s just where we are at. But it’s a positive step for us. So I’m thrilled for our community, our city, our players. I don’t know what that number is going to be, but just having a different spirit in there ... Right now it’s very quiet and it’s a different vibe.
“But I’m excited for our fans, just to have some fans back. And it’s exciting for our young group.”