The Charlotte Hornets did what seemed impossible against the San Antonio Spurs despite an awful start and terrible game from Kemba Walker. Jeremy Lin got the chance from Steve Clifford to show how good he can be. There shouldn’t be anything surprising that he pulled it off on such a momentous occasion.
The Hornets scored just 7 first quarter points and fell behind by 23 points. And yet they won 91-88 against the Spurs, outscoring them 55-37 in the second half. Tim Duncan talked about turnovers, but both Clifford and Gregg Popovich talked about Lin. Popovich said the Spurs simply couldn’t stop him. Clifford? He gave Lin the credit he deserves, and now needs to follow that up by not benching him at the sign of the first mistake he makes in the next game. A confident Lin can do your team wonders. Lin was pulled out of the fourth quarter in the loss to the Denver Nuggets despite scoring 16 points up to that point. He played the final 15 minutes of the game this time, in which the Hornets outscored the Spurs by 8 points.
When the first 3 went down and when I’m comfortable and in a zone, it’s usually good for me. We just played hard. I’m so thankful to God because I’ve been struggling so much. We lost one the other night that we felt like we shouldn’t have lost, so to come out here and get this win is a huge boost for us.
Benching Kemba Walker? This isn’t about the Hornets not needing him on the team. He’s obviously their most talented scorer and probably 90% of the plays in Clifford’s playbook have him involved in some way. But Clifford actually realized what was going on and decided not playing Walker will be the best thing for the Hornets, pulling him out with 3:06 left in the third and inserting Lin, and the bringing him back with less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter, with the Hornets already ahead at this point. He hardly did anything positive in the remaining minutes: He shot 1-of-2 from the line, got blocked once and turned the ball over. For the Hornets to be able to win games during bad Walker performances, Walker needs to be off the floor, or not involved.
And so, the Hornets beat the Spurs after 11 straight losses to them. They beat a Spurs team that according to analytics might just be the best defensive team in NBA history. A Spurs team that beat the Golden State Warriors two nights before. The Hornets two biggest wins this season in terms of the wow factor and strength of their opponents, have come with Walker either not playing or doing terribly, and with Jeremy Lin as the one pulling all the strings. Only two games out of 70, but surely is means something, right? Lin also had 35 points in the win over the Raptors in December.
Lin finished with 29 points (second best for him this season) on 11-of-18 shooting (most he took since a 50-minute effort against the Sacramento Kings) and 4-for-4 from beyond the arc, which is his best long range effort of the season. He scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, including the two free throws that put the Hornets up by three points for good and a 16-foot jumper with 48 seconds to go, giving the Hornets the lead for good. He played 31 minutes, grabbed 7 rebounds, added two assists and one steal.
This wasn’t just Lin of course. Courtney Lee probably had his best game for the Hornets with 17 points. Nicolas Batum played tremendous defense when it mattered and scored 15 points. Cody Zeller wasn’t involved offensively (six points) but worked hard everywhere else, finishing with a game high 14 rebounds, while the guards (Jeremy Lamb had 7 boards as well) did a very good job of helping out against an excellent rebounding team.
Where do we go from here? Obviously, Lin needs to be making shots for these nights to happen. His first three pointer fell and it made him feel good. But as Clifford said, he was the only player attacking the basket while the Hornets couldn’t make anything work for them early on. But the ball is in the Hornets and Clifford’s hands. Lin won’t be the starting point guard of this team, but understanding how important he is when the ball is in his hands and he knows he has control of the game, at least for a little while, can be the difference between a first round exit and making an impact in the playoffs. Walker will bounce back from his 2-for-11 shooting performance. He’s better than that. But realizing and not forgetting that he’s allowed to get benched from time to time could mean a lot for the Hornets.