Charlotte’s Late Push for Playoffs Comes Up Just Short
Walker Finishes with 43 Points in Hornets Loss to Magic
By Matt Rochinski
Thank you Charlotte Hornets!
One month ago, not many fans might have expected the Hornets to still be in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the final game of the season, yet here they were on Wednesday night in Charlotte knocking on the door and needing a win against the Orlando Magic and a loss by the Detroit Pistons in New York against the Knicks in order to grab the No. 8 seed.
Unfortunately, Charlotte fell 122-114 at Spectrum Center to the Magic and the Pistons beat the Knicks, 115-89, eliminating the Hornets from playoff contention as they closed the 2018-19 season at 39-43 overall.
“We had 82 meaningful games this year where young guys got great experience, our team got great experience, we never hung our heads, we stayed resilient all season and put ourselves in a position to make the playoffs when nobody probably expected this,” Hornets Head Coach James Borrego said. “Now it’s about using this as fuel for the summertime and getting better. We were one game away from the playoffs this year. My challenge to the group next year is every game matters, every possession matters, every practice matters and we will value each game more appropriately next season.”
To no one’s surprise it was Kemba Walker who tried to will his team to a victory in the final contest with a game-high 43 points on 16-of-25 shooting (64.0 percent) from the field , including 4-of-9 (44.4 percent) from outside the arc to go with five assists and two rebounds. It was Walker’s seventh game with 40+ points this season, tied for third most in the NBA with Anthony Davis (New Orleans) and Paul George (Oklahoma City).
In a season filled with record-breaking performances and amazing feats from Walker, he also played and started in all 82 games this season. He is just the third player since 2008 (James Harden and LeBron James) to play all 82 games of a season and average more than 25.0 points and grab more than 5.0 assists per contest.
“I love Kemba. I think he’s had an incredible season, the best season of his career,” Borrego said of the three-time All-Star. “I just looked at some numbers today and it was by far the best season of his career, highest usage, he’s been fantastic and a starter in the All-Star game. I love that kid. He inspires me. I love coaching him and I look forward to coaching him for many years to come. Obviously it’s a big summer for us but I believe in Kemba. I believe in that group and I think he was inspired by what he saw here down the stretch. Obviously we have some ways to go and I’ll address personnel stuff down the road. Now is not the time. I was just really proud of Kemba’s effort this season. He played 82 games and never asked for a night off when in most of this league you see guys not playing 82 games.”
Walker also heard MVP chants from the crowd when he stepped to the free-throw line in the second half and received a standing ovation when he checked out of the contest with just a few seconds remaining.
“It was special,” Walker said of the crowd’s reaction. “I give everything I have every single night, so for the fans to cheer me on, that was pretty cool.”
Jeremy Lamb also finished the season strong, scoring 22 points, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out two assists. This marked Lamb’s career-best 18th game with 20+ points this season. In a season full of buzzer-beating shots, Lamb gave many Hornets fans some lasting memories of the 30th anniversary in his best season as a pro.
Charlotte’s young core, led by rookie Miles Bridges, helped complete a strong 8-4 close to the season that brought the Hornets back into contention. Bridges filled the stat sheet agains the Magic with 18 points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks. He finished with 23 games scoring in double figures, with eight of those performances coming in the last 12 games of the season.
“I didn’t really have expectations of him coming in,” Borrego said of Bridges. “I just wanted him to grow and what I can say is that Miles Bridges grew throughout the season. He became a starter for us. He belongs in this league. He belongs out there on that floor. He ignited us over these last two or three weeks and his ceiling is very high. I can’t wait to watch him work this summer and the first game you see him on the floor next year I think you’ll see a much different player because he’s going to work his tail off this summer. He understands what he needs to work on and he we have a lot of time before we tip off next season.”
Second-year forward Dwayne Bacon (12 points) also scored in double figures for the Hornets, marking the seventh time in the final 12 games he did so.
“I mean, we fell short, but we played some meaningful games, we got better at the end and gave ourselves a chance to even try to get into playoffs,” Walker said of the final stretch run. “That’s something you can definitely appreciate. I’m happy for the young guys who got a chance toward the end of the season. I don’t think anyone expected those to play the way they played. They stepped up big, so it was fun down the stretch.”