Normal for LaMelo Ball is not normal for the average person. He described Friday night, a game on national television against his older brother that was preceded by multiple days of media attention, as normal.
To his credit, the spotlight didn’t faze him. It rarely ever does.
In outdueling Lonzo in the box score, LaMelo finished one assist shy of becoming the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. What he and the Hornets did accomplish was a second-half comeback that saw them overturn an 18-point deficit by outscoring the host Pelicans by 20 points in the second half to win going away, 118-110.
While it wasn’t a triple-double, Ball did notch his first double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. He also helped close out the win, playing his first meaningful late-game, fourth-quarter minutes of his career as the Hornets iced the game away.
Just another normal game.
“I mean, I’ve been in this for a minute now,” LaMelo said after his performance. “I’ve had ESPN games since I was a kid so it’s all normal.”
Ball has grown up in the spotlight, which is why Friday likely had little impact on his nerves. He and Lonzo spent Thursday talking to media, preparing for a memorable battle between rookie and older brother. But it was LaMelo whose impact was left on the game.
“He was free and easy out there,” Hornets head coach James Borrego said of Ball. “It’s kind of what we expect now. He’s done this before. He’s been here before. He’s not fazed by the moment and I’m just proud of him.
“I think he’s a fantastic young player. He energizes our group. He brings us great competence, a swagger that we need at times. I thought he was fantastic.”
Free and easy described Ball’s night perfectly. Most of his damage came in the first half when the Pelicans couldn’t miss and the Hornets couldn’t make. He created extra possessions with three offensive rebounds in the first two periods alone and four total on the night.
The 10 rebounds were a season-high but were hardly an anomaly as Ball came into the night averaging 5.7 per game over his last seven games.
“He’s got a knack for going and getting rebounds,” Borrego said. “He just has a knack. You can’t teach it. He just has it on both ends of the floor. He can defensive rebound. He got a few rebounds against Zion (Williamson) and Steven Adams.
“I thought the game came down to rebounding tonight. We won the war 45 to 36. We out-rebounded them 16 to 10 on offensive rebounds.”
As good as LaMelo may have been in the first half, the Hornets trailed by as many as 18 in the first half and by 12 at halftime. Looking for a spark in the second half, Borrego turned to a lineup he teased before the game, placing his three point guards in Ball, Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier on the court together.
The gamble paid off as, in eight fourth-quarter minutes, the trio had a staggering net rating of +65.2.
“The ball was moving,” Borrego said of the lineup. “I know we were finding some good looks there. Those three guys can all shoot the ball, all playmake. I keep saying that but we have to rebound and we have to defend with that group and they did that.
“I think all three guys were very important in this win tonight. The more you can have them on the floor together at times, if it makes sense, the better for us.”
While the Hornets had cut into the deficit in the third quarter behind 9-of-14 shooting from three, pulling within five by the end of the period, it was the Ball-Rozier-Graham lineup that helped push them over the top.
It was Ball that found Rozier for a three-pointer to cut the lead to 106-103 with 6:19 left. It was Graham that forced a Pelicans timeout with a layup on the next possession, then had a three-point play out of the timeout. And then it was Ball who found Hayward some two minutes later for a three-pointer to give the Hornets a four-point lead.
In that span of 5:38 in the fourth quarter, that lineup outscored New Orleans 18-8 and gave Charlotte a lead it would not relinquish.
“I think it forces their hand,” Borrego said of how the three-guard lineup causes defenses problems. “They have to figure out how they’re going to match up. I thought we can get teams on their heels with that lineup. The amount of ball movement, playmaking, shooting, multiple guys handling is important to us. We’re trying to create mismatches and drive it and kick it and that’s what that group did.”
It was Ball that was at the center of it all on the night. It was his introduction to the national television audience as a Hornet. It was a second-straight Hornets win. It was a win that helped Charlotte close their four-game road trip at .500 after two losses in Philadelphia to open it. It was another bright performance from a rookie only growing in confidence.
It was just another normal game.