The first game of the NBA’s new play-in tournament, between the 10th-place Charlotte Hornets and the ninth-place Indiana Pacers, was not the intense, high-quality contest the league probably had in mind. The Pacers jumped out to an 11–3 lead and just kept on jumping out, out and out and out, eventually stretching their lead to 39 points and winning a laugher, 144-117. It was extremely not pretty, but at least it was satisfyingly definitive, and if you are the sort of person who hears the soaring music crescendoing whenever the unheralded pull an upset, this one had a very moving soundtrack.
Neither team was at full strength. Gordon Hayward, it turns out, is an irreplaceable part of what made the 2021 Hornets frisky: They sat at a respectable 25-23 on April 3, when it was announced that Hayward would be out at least four weeks following a right foot sprain suffered the night before, against these same Pacers. In his absence, which ultimately covered the remainder of Charlotte’s regular season, the team went 8-16 and produced a lousy 109 offensive rating, good for sixth worst in the league. For all their LaMelo Ball-inspired verve and lung-busting hype, the Hornets, even with Hayward, were never quite good; when he was ruled out of Tuesday’s play-in Monday afternoon, the odds of Charlotte advancing out of the play-in tournament—and the odds of their potential advancement ultimately meaning jack squat—took a blow.
But even without Hayward the Hornets were by far the healthier team. Indiana’s best pure shot-creator and the engine behind their promising surge in last year’s pre-playoff bubble, T.J. Warren, never suited up this season. Their floor-spacing center and Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Myles Turner, was lost on April 20 to a plantar tear in his right foot. Jeremy Lamb, who heroically took on a larger offensive role in place of Victor Oladipo and then T.J. Warren and then Caris LeVert, has been out since April 18 with a sore knee. LeVert, who returned from a cancer scare in mid-March and averaged 21 points per game on the year, was put into COVID-19 protocols this week and ruled out indefinitely. Any one of those guys would be the best player on the Cleveland Cavaliers; the Pacers, who aren’t even good, somehow entered a winner-take-all postseason contest having subtracted all four of them from their rotation.
The collection of upright and blessedly ambulatory gentlemen Indiana cobbled together for the purposes of playing basketball Tuesday night was a long way from sexy, but hoo boy was it more than enough to karate kick the Hornets into the offseason. The Pacers were not entirely without dependable veterans: Domantas Sabonis overcame a rotten start to put up an impressive near-triple-double; Malcolm Brogdon, who I think you now have to assume is deploying booby traps to sideline teammates who cut too deeply into his usage, was his usual efficient self; several Holidays took the floor and did identifiably Holiday-ish but sub-Jrue-level things. Indiana’s recognizable pros did good work.
Those performances should not distract you from the fact that the Hornets, a team for whom the NBA saw fit to open up an unearned path to playoff glory, were thrashed by some extremely generic fill-in players Tuesday night. I for one would like to take a moment to name these guys, so that we may someday look back together, squint, tap our chins, and in general give ourselves minor headaches trying to remember them. Here are some guys who beat the absolute shit out of the Charlotte Hornets:
McDermott, who got a cool writeup in a recent Zach Lowe column for being more decisive on catches and knocking down a shocking 70 percent of his attempts at the rim, was the best player on the floor for huge sections of the first half, which was the only remotely competitive portion of the game. McConnell, a skittering, unpleasant player to watch, was worlds better than anyone in Charlotte’s rotation, and spend the evening unzipping the Hornets defense with one staccato drive after another. Brissett, who started the year with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the developmental league and has played just 21 total regular season games with the Pacers, started at power forward and went 10-of-14 from the floor for 23 points.
Bitadze, a rookie holding down a rotation job now that Turner is on the shelf, put up a double-double in 19 minutes. Sumner played just seven minutes but did this extremely cool shit at the close of the first quarter, which I must reiterate was the conclusion of the competitive portion of the night’s festivities:
Kelan Martin, who I have never heard of before in my life, finished with 14 points in 20 minutes and hammered down this mighty jam in the face of vile Duke product Vernon Carey Jr.:
Stanley swiped a sloppy pass at mid-court and punched home a mighty dunk of his own. Sampson and Bridah probably did cool things, too, but by then the actual contest had been over for such a long time that I’d switched over to series seven of The Great British Bake-Off. Unlike the case of the disgraceful Charlotte Hornets, it was truly a bummer when [SPOILER ALERT] Val was eliminated. On the other hand, Candace’s Banoffee Whiskey Cups looked mighty tasty! Not unlike the delectable highlights of these super random Pacers replacement guys.