The Charlotte Hornets spent last offseason trying to become a contender. Ditching the Bobcats nickname didn't work, so the team wanted to show things would be different now. Young players were traded, veterans were brought in and expectations were raised.
Now the Hornets are finally starting to reach their potential. With a 107-99 win over the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, Charlotte has laid its claim as the hottest team this side of Golden State and San Antonio. The Hornets have reeled off 16 wins in their past 20 games and risen to sixth in the Eastern Conference. It's been no fluke, either.
The Hornets dominated against Orlando early on in a game much more lopsided than the score would indicate. Charlotte used a 35-13 second quarter to blow the game open, then took the foot off the gas in the fourth quarter as the Magic trimmed the lead. By the end of the third quarter, the Hornets had rolled to a 92-71 advantage.
Nicolas Batum, the centerpiece of Charlotte's big offseason, has been showing why the team gave up so much for him. The do-it-all forward racked up 26 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in the win over Orlando, continuing his stellar play of late. Over the past five games, Batum has averaged 18.4 points, eight assists and nearly six rebounds.
The Hornets paid a high price to acquire Batum from the Trail Blazers over the summer, giving up former lottery pick Noah Vonleh, but he's proven to be a game changer. With injuries keeping Michael Kidd-Gilchrist out of the lineup most of the season, Batum has been leaned on heavily as a playmaker and perimeter defender. He's helped take pressure off Kemba Walker offensively, which has in turn allowed the point guard to have a breakout season.
Walker didn't have his best night against Orlando, going for 16 points on 6-of-16 shooting and eight rebounds, but he's been a revelation for Charlotte. After seeing his numbers stagnate over the past few years, he's setting career highs across the board in 2015-16. Some minor tweaks have helped take his game to the next level, and now Walker is among the most productive guards in the league.
This is what Charlotte hoped for after all its offseason moves. Even without major contributions from Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson, here come the Hornets. Only the Spurs have a better net rating than their plus-8.8 mark over their past 20 games, per NBA.com. While the Cavaliers remain the default favorite and the Raptors are widely considered their primary threat, there's something buzzing behind them.
2 other things
Dirk could use some more help
Kyrie Irving stripped Nowitzki on a last-second play to clinch the game:
This doesn't seem fair to a future Hall of Famer. Nowitzki was solid against the Cavs, scoring 20 points on 7-of-17 shooting and blocking three shots. His fellow starters, on the other hand, added a combined 21 points on 8-of-24 shooting. If it weren't for David Lee and J.J. Barea, who came off the bench to score 37 points on 15-of-21 shooting, then Dallas probably gets wrecked in this one. Dirk is a treasure, but at his age, he needs more support than that.
Some results are predictable
One of the great things about sports is that any given team can win on any given night. The underdog can always surprise the juggernaut. That mystery, intrigue and excitement are what keep bringing us back for more.
Except sometimes, the Warriors take on the Knicks. And when that happens, the result feels all but inevitable. Golden State was always going to win Wednesday night. The basketball gods' plan, however chaotic, could only end with Stephen Curry being declared ruler yet again.
And that's precisely what happened. Curry went nuclear with 34 points on 20 shots, the Warriors dominated the Knicks from start to finish, 121-85, and the world settled back to its metaphysical equilibrium. This game wasn't remotely close, either, with Golden State leading by 33 after three quarters. Carmelo Anthony was the only New York starter to score more than four points.
Every once in a while, things will go exactly as you expected.
Play of the night