Hornets hitting stride behind LaMelo Ball and his beautiful basketball

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The stars had aligned for the Hornets entering Saturday’s game. The team had a chance to move above .500 for the first time since mid-January, 3,000 fans were in attendance for the biggest home crowd of the year and a depleted Raptors squad lined up against them.

The result? Beautiful basketball, as LaMelo Ball described it. The Hornets led wire-to-wire and played arguably their best half of the season in the opening two periods, knocking down 11 first-quarter 3-pointers and breaking the franchise record for 3-pointers in a half barely four minutes into the second period.

It was the springboard for the Hornets to open up a lead as large as 25 points in the first half as they cruised comfortably to a 114-104 win. It’s a final scoreline that is flattering to the visitors and doesn’t paint the full picture of the dominant performance the Hornets put forth as they moved to 19-18 on the year and back to within a half-game of the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

“The ball movement was fantastic,” Hornets head coach James Borrego said. “I mean, they came out. they set the tone with sharing it, moving it, getting great shots. We weren’t getting good shots, we were getting great shots and it’s a product of them buying into our system and our ball movement and our spacing, everything we’ve talked about all season. I didn’t think we were great against Detroit doing it. We hit it on it yesterday in film. We drilled it yesterday and our guys executed it tonight.”

“The game was moving too fast for us,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse added. “They were really pushing it up the floor. It was an emphasis for us – they’re a really good transition team, but there was too much happening too quickly and some guys made some deep shots as well. They were just playing really carefree and fast and popping it around and just not contesting it enough. That’s the bottom line.”

Charlotte could hardly do wrong in the first period, hitting 11 of their 16 3-point attempts, 14 of their 22 total field goal attempts and assist 12 of those makes.

By the time Nurse took his first timeout of the game, LaMelo Ball, who had just seven points in Thursday’s win against Detroit, had connected on three 3-pointers in the opening 3:43 and Charlotte led 14-2. The timeout only served to shuffle the board for the Hornets as the next four Charlotte field goals all came from range at the hands of P.J. Washington, Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward, stretching Charlotte’s lead to 31-9.

Devonte’ Graham, coming off the bench for the second straight game, and Miles Bridges got in the act. By the time the first quarter buzzer sounded, Charlotte’s lead was already 20 points.

“I feel like it’s beautiful to play and beautiful to watch,” Ball said of the first quarter. “You can ask all of my teammates and we love doing it. We feel good out there.”

When Graham splashed home the team’s 15th 3-pointer on just its 22nd attempt with 7:48 left in the second quarter to both break the franchise record for 3-pointers in a half and give the hosts a 58-35 lead, a scorching net was the only difference between the Hornets and an NBA Jam team that was on fire through the opening 16 minutes.

“It’s great,” Graham said of how the team played to open the game. “Everybody’s having fun. You can see the ball moving. You can see when the ball moves and before the shot goes up, if the whole bench is standing up, then you know (you’re) playing good offense. And it keeps everybody involved and interacting in the offense so I think it’s definitely fun.”

Predictably, the Hornets slowed from range the rest of the way, hitting just six of their final 27 3-point attempts on the night, coming up two makes short of the single-game franchise record of 23 3-pointers.

But Ball was certain to add some of the flair he’s known for to cap off a stellar first half. After Washington’s steal and kick-out to Ball in the corner on a fast break, the rookie pump-faked, spun 360 degrees and knocked down his fourth 3-pointer of the game.

“We don’t teach that one in our program,” Borrego said with a smile postgame. “I don’t know where he learned it from, but if it goes in, I just clap my hands and say, ‘Let’s go play some good defense.’ He makes a number of these plays. It’s the spin, pass, behind the back, the corner 3 spin, he can spin in the lane, at the rim. He’s just a unique player. He’s very unique.”

The flair came with substance on Saturday, as has been the case since Ball entered the starting lineup. Ball finished with 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists in 25 minutes. After the game, Borrego pointed to Ball as one of the reasons for the impressive offensive performance.

“We had 30 assists tonight, the ball was moving,” he said. “And it started with Melo coming out the gate – kick-aheads, drive, kick, swing. He was a participant in that, he was a recipient of it as well in the corners. I thought he was fantastic tonight, the entire group. 30 assists, but the ball was moving tonight, and we probably left a number on the table as well. We missed a number of open 3s that we typically make. But I thought he was fantastic tonight.”

The win keeps the Hornets in the thick of the playoff race in the sixth seed. Only a half-game separates fourth through seventh in the conference and only three games separate fourth through 11th.

Even with back-to-back wins out of the gate to start the second half of the regular season, Borrego hopes Saturday serves as a blueprint for how to play the rest of the season.

“Now, the challenge is can we consistently play at this level,” Borrego said. “We got to consistently see this type of ball movement in space. And that’s the goal. That’s the challenge right now.”

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