Hornets start strong in preseason opener against Toronto. Were they able to sustain that success?

By Richard Walker

The Charlotte Hornets opened strong in their 2020 preseason opener on Saturday night at Spectrum Center.

Unfortunately for the Hornets, a 22-0 first quarter surge wasn’t able to be sustained as the Toronto Raptors came back with a counter-punch that led them to a 111-110 victory.

It was the Hornets first actual game since March 11 and came after an abbreviated training camp – and one of the best teams in the NBA. In a sign of the pandemic for the forseeable future, no fans were in attendance for Charlotte’s their preseason home debut.

“Good start,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “Obviously we built a 19-point lead. I liked what I saw then. But they picked up the pressure and we didn’t respond and showed some growing pains.”

Charlotte (0-1) hosts Toronto in its next game at 7 p.m. on Monday night before closing out a four-game preseason schedule with games at the Orlando Magic on Thursday and next Saturday. The Hornets open the regular season Dec. 23 at the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In Saturday’s preseason opener, much of the anticipation revolved around the Charlotte debuts of veteran free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward and rookie LaMelo Ball.

Hayward started and had 11 points, four rebounds and two assists in 19 1-2 minutes.

“He’s just a calming presence,” Borrego said of Hayward. “He’s going to be huge for us.”

Ball came off the bench in the middle of the first quarter and scored no points – he missed all five field goal attempts, including three 3-point tries – but had a game-high 10 rebounds in addition to four assists. Three of those assists came with the flair Ball is known for – one on a long bounce pass to Bismack Biyombo and behind-the-back passes to Miles Bridges and Biyombo.

“It was a good performance,” Borrego said of Ball. “He looks like he belongs. I thought overall it was a solid performance.”

Joining Hayward in the starting lineup were guards Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier, forward P.J. Washington and center Cody Zeller. Bridges, Biyombo and twins Caleb Martin and Cody Martin joined Ball on the second unit though Borrego experimented with many rotations of his top 10 players.

Second-year forward Jalen McDaniels (16 1-2 minutes) and rookie Grant Riller (11 minutes) were the only other Hornets play more than 10 minutes though Borrego used 16 players total in the game; Rookies Nick Richards, Vernon Carey, Jr., Nate Darling and Xavier Sneed all played in the fourth quarter.

Four other training camp invitees didn’t play, among them fourth-year Malik Monk; Monk participated in his first practice on Saturday after testing positive for COVID-19 when training camp started earlier this month.

“I thought we came out pretty strong,” said Hayward, whose team used the 22-0 surge to take a 25-6 lead late in the first quarter. “It kinda went downhill from there.”

Ball said he was happy to make his debut, but disappointed with the result.

“How would I rate my performance?” Ball responded to a question. “Not well because we lost.”

Twenty-three turnovers that led to 28 Toronto points aided the Raptors comeback; Toronto retook the lead at 45-44 in the middle of the second quarter and led by as many as 27 points.

Bridges had a team-high 12 points for Charlotte, with Hayward and Biyombo adding 11 points each.

Toronto’s Matt Thomas came off the bench to score a game-high 16 points.