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Heading into the season, it looked like the Charlotte Hornets would need newly acquired swingman Nicolas Batum to consistently play like his best self — "the version of Batum that just decides to take over a game [as] the rule, not the exception" — to give them a chance to make the leap back to relevance they'd envisioned before losing defensive linchpin Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Well, so far, so good.
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The 26-year-old Frenchman continued his stellar start to the 2015-16 season on Wednesday, scoring 10 points with 11 rebounds and 11 assists to log his first triple-double as a Hornet (and the fifth of his eight-year NBA career) and lead Charlotte to a convincing 99-81 victory over the visiting Miami Heat at Time Warner Cable Arena. Batum added a steal and a block in 28 minutes of floor time, during which the Hornets outscored the overwhelmed Heat by 22 points.
Despite struggling a bit with his shot, missing six of his nine field-goal attempts on the evening, Batum was locked in and switched on from the opening tip. He showcased the rhythm he continues to develop with his new teammates by setting the table to the tune of six helpers — all leading to either 3-pointers, dunks or layups — in the first quarter alone, helping pace Charlotte to a 27-17 lead that they'd never relinquish. The Hornets led by double-digits for the bulk of the final three quarters and by 20 or more for much of the second half, with the lead reaching 30 with just over nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter before Steve Clifford called off the dogs, allowing the Heat to scratch their way back into slightly more respectable territory before the final horn.
All 13 Hornets who suited up played, and they all scored, with power forward Marvin Williams and point guard Kemba Walker leading four players in double figures with 18 points apiece. Charlotte shot a shade under 50 percent from the field in the game and made 11 of its 27 3-point tries, marking the ninth time in 21 games the Hornets have cracked double-digits in long-distance connections; they did so just nine times in the full 82-game slate last season.
Their combination of ball movement, pace-pushing and shot-making torched a Heat team that entered Wednesday with the NBA's second stingiest defense, propelling the Hornets to their third straight win, their eighth in the last 10 games and their 10th in 13 tries in the friendly confines of their home gym. Beating Miami also pushed Charlotte up the standings — at 13-8, the Hornets now sit atop the Southeast Division and in second place in the Eastern Conference, just one game behind LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This, to put it mildly, is not how many saw things playing out for the Hornets after MKG went down. You could kind of see a path to Charlotte staying viable, but it felt optimistic to imagine so many things going the Hornets' way — Batum consistently playing like an All-Star; Kemba Walker becoming a league-average shooter after four years of 40 percent from the floor and 30 percent from 3; Jeremy Lamb blossoming with a clear role and steady minutes after withering on the vine in Oklahoma City; bounce-back years for Jeremy Lin and Spencer Hawes after changes of scenery moving them away from L.A.; the continued development of Cody Zeller into a reliable two-way frontcourt rotation player; etc. And yet, here we are. With the exception of veteran center Al Jefferson, who is now sidelined by a calf injury and whose role has declined as Charlotte has looked to downsize and speed up, just about everyone's playing up to their optimistic projection.
After going 8-for-13 on Wednesday, Walker's averaging 17.4 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting from the floor with a 36.9 percent mark from 3 — all career highs. Zeller continues to make an impact with his defensive activity, rim-running and athleticism, chipping in nine points, two rebounds, two assists and a block in 23 1/2 minutes while manning the middle in place of the injured Jefferson, who earlier Wednesday received a five-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Marvin Williams continues to provide a stabilizing shot-making presence as a small-ball power forward, canning four more bombs on Wednesday.
Lamb, Lin and Hawes combined for 20 points off the bench. First-round pick Frank Kaminsky is still finding his way, but he turned in perhaps his best all-around game as a pro, with five points, seven rebounds, a career-best six assists and a steal in 29 minutes of work. P.J. Hairston made both of his 3-pointers, a nice development for a youngster making just 24 percent from deep this season that could make Charlotte even harder to guard if it carries over.
And in the middle of it all, once again, was Batum, who's averaging a career-best 16.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, hitting 39.2 percent of his triples while taking nearly six a game, assisting on a higher share of his teammates' baskets and commanding a significantly higher share of his team's offensive possessions than he ever did in Portland. He's one of just four players in the NBA this season averaging at least 16 points, six boards and five dimes per game; the other three are Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and James Harden.
That's pretty decent company to be in, but it's not the company in which Clifford mentioned Batum after Wednesday's win. He was more interested in comparing his playmaking wing to "other exceptional passers, such as Tracy McGrady, Rafer Alston and Steve Nash," according to The Associated Press:
"They're not going to just pass to a guy where (scoring) is going to be a problem," Clifford said. "That's how Nic plays. Watch him. The only time he looks a guy off is when he knows that's not a good option. That's how he thinks the game."
He's been the consistent catalyst for a Hornets offense that ranks seventh in the NBA in points scored per possession, a quantum leap forward for a franchise that has finished in the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency in every season of its 11-year existence. And while he's not on Kidd-Gilchrist's level as a perimeter stopper, he's been a steady contributor to a defense that also ranks seventh in the league in points allowed per possession. (That makes the Hornets one of just five teams ranked in the top 10 on both sides of the ball at the quarter-pole, alongside the perfect Golden State Warriors, the No. 2 with a bullet San Antonio Spurs, the Paul George-led Indiana Pacers, and the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook-fueled Oklahoma City Thunder.)
It's a level of defensive competence that seemed unfathomable for Charlotte after Kidd-Gilchrist's injury, given what appeared to be a lack of rim protection and top-flight ballhawks, but it's one that repeatedly stalled Miami's attack on Wednesday, as the Heat failed to crack 20 points in any of the first three quarters and finished just 29-for-75 (38.7 percent) from the floor with 18 turnovers turning into 21 Hornets points. From Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:
What specifically irked [Dwyane] Wade and [Chris] Bosh were the Heat’s freelancing tendencies on offense.
“You can’t freelance on the road,” said Wade, who scored 11 points in 25 minutes. “It goes back to the Detroit game. C.B. has to touch the ball in spots where he’s comfortable. I have to touch the ball in spots where I’m comfortable and then we play from there. When we get into this freelance basketball on the road, it's just not the game that's successful for us at this point. [...]
"We have to decide how we want this season to go. If we want it to go in a positive way, then we'll figure out how to get it together. We'll figure out how to be on the same page together, communicate together and get the job done and give ourselves a chance to win on the road."
They had no chance on Wednesday, which has become a surprisingly common occurrence for teams not ready to execute on both ends of the floor when they enter Time Warner Cable Arena. Much of the credit for Charlotte's early-season success belongs to Clifford, who has continued to exact premier defensive attention to detail from his charges and who has become the rare bench boss to actually follow through on the things every coach seems to say during the summer (we want to play uptempo, we want to get out and run, we want to share the ball and get everyone involved, etc.) and implement them once the regular season starts.
But an awful lot of what's gone right for Charlotte through the first quarter of the campaign, and of what these Hornets are, seems to be embodied in Batum — a smart, multifaceted player who can see the play before it develops and make it before the defense realizes it, who doesn't have to be ostentatious to dominate, and who might just be a whole lot better than many people realize.
"I'm blessed they've embraced me," he said after the game, according to the AP. And with him playing this way and the Hornets looking as solidly good as they have in decades, well, what's not to embrace?
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