NBA Column: Can former Huskies force Hornets into NBA playoffs?

Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) drives between Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, left, and guard Kyle Lowry during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

Last weekend, a couple of UConn legends willed the Charlotte Hornets to victories over two of the Eastern Conference’s best teams to keep them relevant in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Saturday belonged to Kemba Walker, who scored 18 from his 36-point outburst in the fourth quarter to erase an 18-point deficit to the Boston Celtics. The six-foot-one point guard also nearly triple doubled, adding 11 rebounds and nine assists to the heroic effort.

The very next day, the Hornets had to travel from Charlotte to Toronto for a challenging game on the road against the East’s No. 2 team, the Raptors. It didn’t seem that the road trip, quick turnaround or rabid Toronto fans affected the Hornets at all, as they were able to keep up with the Kawhi-led team throughout the contest.

With 3.1 seconds left and the score 114-112 Raptors, the Hornets had one last chance to tied it up or win. Rule of thumb is to go for the tie at home, and for the win on the road, and it looked like the Hornets set up a play to get Walker an open 3-pointer.

The play broke down, and Walker was smothered, so Marvin Williams tried to inbound the ball to Jeremy Lamb. The defender tipped the pass away, but Lamb was able to stay with the ball, and in one motion, he corralled the tipped pass, turned around and heaved the ball from half court just before the buzzer. The shot had so much arc I’m surprised it didn’t hit the rafters, but instead all it hit was the backboard before it dropped through the net, giving the Hornets the one-point win. Lamb finished with 13 points while shooting 3-4 from deep, and Walker added 15 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds.

Walker and Lamb leading the Hornets is nothing new this season. The duo top the team in points per game with 25.0 and 15.2, respectively. The next highest is the team’s starting power forward, Williams, with 10.3 per game. This starkly resembles the UConn 2010-11 men’s basketball team that went on to win the NCAA Championship under coach Jim Calhoun.

That UConn team was led by Walker and Lamb with 23.5 and 11.1 points per game, respectively, and starting power forward Alex Oriakhi scoring the next most with 9.6 per game. While it’s unlikely that the Hornet’s first-year general manager Mitch Kupchak and rookie head coach James Borrego tried modeling this NBA team after that Cinderella UConn team, it seems to be a formula that works in March.

The Hornets, who now sit at No. 10 in the East, are two games away from the No. 8 Miami Heat for the final playoff spot. The Magic are also smack dab in the middle, sitting one game ahead of Charlotte and one game behind Miami, with all three teams having played 73 games with nine left on the schedule.

Coincidentally, all three teams are in the NBA’s southeast division. Since 2002, the Hornets have only made the playoffs three times, twice as a seven seed and once as a six. They played the Magic once and the Heat twice, getting swept once by each opponent and losing to Miami in seven games in their most recent appearance. All were first round exits for Charlotte.

If Charlotte sneaks into the playoffs in the No. 8 spot, a brutal matchup with the NBA’s current best team, the Milwaukee Bucks, awaits them. Would it be worth it for Charlotte to push their way into the playoffs, taking them out of the draft lottery, likely just to get bounced in the first round yet again?

The Hornets have two young players with high ceilings in Miles Bridges and Malik Monk, and it would be valuable for their development to experience an NBA playoff atmosphere. Furthermore, making or missing the playoffs may be the deciding factor for Charlotte to keep their franchise cornerstone, Walker.

Walker is set to be a free agent this offseason and has proven to be worthy of a max contract. Though no team can offer more money to Walker than Charlotte, the allure of teaming up with superstars in his home town of New York or making a big three in Dallas with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis will surely be enticing to a 28-year-old who hasn’t experienced much winning thus far in his NBA career. Due to the limited available cap space the Hornets find themselves with, they will need to prove to Walker that they can be a playoff team that will develop from within with the young pieces that they already have.

Getting into the playoffs will be challenging for the Hornets, who have the Spurs, Warriors and Raptors remaining on the schedule. But if they’ve proven anything this last weekend, it’s that they have the gall and the moxie to pull out tight games against quality opponents in tough environments. A matchup with the Magic in their final game of the regular season could be an important one if the Heat manage to drop some games. Miami has losable matchups against the Raptors, 76ers and Celtics twice that could knock them out of the picture. Let’s see if Walker and Lamb can carry their team through yet another March (and early April) of madness.


Sean Janos is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached at sean.janos@uconn.edu.