Wednesday night’s Wizards-Hornets game was not at all what you hope for from a contest featuring the top seed in the Eastern Conference and an exciting upstart squad led by an electrifying young playmaker. The final score, 97–87, tells you this was a slog. The Wizards just are this way: Despite posting the NBA’s fourth-ranked defensive rating, their ho-hum four-ish net rating points to an offense that struggles to pull away from the opposition, even with a running start. But the Hornets! The Hornets have a top-10 offense, and play at the NBA’s fifth-fastest pace, and they do all kinds of cool pick-and-rolling and drive-and-kicking and alley-ooping, in large part because they employ LaMelo Ball, who in most circumstances is like a one-man fountain of juice.
But not Wednesday. Despite throwing something like seven alley-oops in the game, Ball struggled to get Charlotte’s offense going. His own shot was off, which did not help. Ball was 3-for-11 in a frustrating first half, the Hornets lost his minutes, and Charlotte’s fun and up-tempo offense managed just 45 points. Despite all that, and despite a six-point halftime lead, it was actually the Wizards’ offense that was more glaringly inept: Washington shot a disgusting 3-for-19 from beyond the arc in the first half on a diet of mostly open, in-rhythm looks. James Borrego, Charlotte’s head coach, noted this trend and made a thoughtful defensive adjustment: The Hornets deemphasized goofball center Mason Plumlee, shifted to a long, athletic lineup, and busted out two zone coverages designed to encourage Washington into more and generally tougher outside shots. The Wizards acquiesced, shot a gut-churning 1-for-15 from beyond the arc in the third quarter, and as a result absorbed a fatal 23–2 Hornets scoring run.
But even Charlotte’s huge run was more methodical than exhilarating. The game still suffered from an infuriating lack of style and pizzazz. LaMelo, too, just couldn’t shake loose for any of the cool highlight stuff that energizes Charlotte’s home crowd and sends local play-by-play maniac Eric Collins into fits of lung-shredding hysteria. Early in the game, Ball had a discouraging moment, stopping Charlotte’s offense so he could work an isolation against Kyle Kuzma. Ball, brimming with confidence, strung together a couple of neat-looking set-up dribbles, and then immediately stepped out of bounds, unforced, for a turnover. It was just that kind of night. But LaMelo, God bless him, is not so easily dissuaded. With a comfortable fourth-quarter lead and a discouraged, demoralized opponent, Ball was ready to once again style things up and give the crowd something memorable. He once again picked an isolation with Kuzma for his big moment, and once again started in on the set-up dribbles. Let’s go.
This did not juice up the crowd as intended. Not to be deterred, moments later LaMelo got the ball again on a mismatch, this time against center Daniel Gafford. Oh baby, watch this shit:
Hmm. This also did not have the desired effect. It was his last real crack at it, although he launched another ill-advised 31-footer a minute later in a late shot-clock situation, for good measure. Ball finished the game 4-of-18 from the floor, and never quite put his particular stamp on the action. The young fellow was desperate to do a little stunting. The very least the Wizards could’ve done, amid their own exasperating and deadly 8-for-42 performance from beyond the arc, was let the man have a real highlight or two.
It may seem like I’m trying to own LaMelo Ball or call him a clownfraud or something, but genuinely this is a LaMelo Ball appreciation blog. The talent around him in Charlotte is fine but decidedly unspecial. An offense formed around Miles Bridges, Terry Rozier, and Gordon Hayward has every chance of being solid and precisely zero chance of being much fun, apart from the occasional Bridges mega-dunk. LaMelo is a good penetrator who nevertheless can be bottled up by Kyle Kuzma; he’s a good but streaky shooter who is most comfortable operating as a facilitator; his size and athleticism advantages are unlikely to ever be so pronounced that opponents bother with double-teams. The theory of LaMelo Ball doesn’t rely upon physical domination. How does he make Charlotte’s offense sing? By doing cool shit! By being bolder and zanier and more creative than all but a tiny handful of NBA players. The Hornets, to their enormous credit, have given him the widest possible latitude to get funky.
Sometimes that will result in Ball getting locked up embarrassingly by Jonathan Kuminga, or getting his shit volleyball-spiked back in his face by Kyle Kuzma, or doinking a couple would-be haymaker pull-up threes off the side-rim. It’s fine! Ball is still learning what he can and can’t do on an NBA floor. When it works, and he’s raining pull-ups and slinging alley-oops and making his ho-hum teammates look like Globetrotters, it rules. And when it doesn’t, and he makes himself look like Sideshow Bob auditioning for the And1 Live Tour, that also rules. Something for everyone.