Strong start and late surge not enough for Hornets in home opener

By Richard Walker

Facing a completely remade Oklahoma City Thunder team playing its first game of the season would’ve appeared a chance for a Charlotte Hornets victory on Saturday night – with or without its starting center.

Second-year forward P.J. Washington certainly thought that way.

So after losing 109-107 in a game filled with momentum shifts, Washington put it this way:

“Overall for the whole team, I feel like we should’ve played a lot better and we could’ve won that game.”

Charlotte fell to 0-2 on the season after a game in which the Hornets twice led by 11 points in the second quarter and closed the game on a 18-6 surge. But Charlotte also missed 12 of 32 free throw attempts, made 39.8 percent of its field goal attempts with several close range misfires and was outrebounded 54-47.

This against a team under a new coach that has made 11 offseason trades that have left it with only six players remaining from last year’s roster that fashioned a 44-28 record before losing a seven-game opening round playoff series to the Houston Rockets.

“I thought there was some good out there, (but) obviously we’ve got a long way to go,” Charlotte coach James Borrego said. “We’ve got a lot to work on and we hit some dry offense again.”

Prized rookie LaMelo Ball’s effort was typical of his teams.

Ball scored 13 points in the first half – his first NBA points – before going scoreless in the second half.

A third quarter in which Charlotte made only six of 29 field goals, was outscored 23-16 and outrebounded 18-16 as Oklahoma City took the lead was a major culprit.

“We have just got to go back to having fun,” said Miles Bridges, who scored all 14 points of his points in the fourth quarter.

Bridges’ last bucket – a 3-pointer – tied the score at 107 with 9.7 seconds left after Charlotte rallied from a 13-point deficit with 2:12 left.

But Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s 22-footer with 1.4 seconds left proved decisive after Terry Rozier’s contested 3-pointer from the right wing was long at the buzzer.

“We’ve got a long way to go and a lot of work to do,” said Borrego, whose team is back in action on Sunday at 7 p.m. at home against the Brooklyn Nets.

Seven of the 10 players the Hornets used in their first game without starting center Cody Zeller (broken left hand) scored in double figures, led by Rozier’s 19 points and Washington’s 18.

Veteran Bismack Biyombo started in place of Zeller and Washington was used as the backup center while rookie centers Vernon Carey, Jr., and Nick Richards didn’t play.

Ball converted five of 10 field goals overall, was two of four on 3-pointers and also had six rebounds, one assist and two turnovers in 15 minutes off the bench.

“I thought he was aggressive,” Borrego said of Ball. “He took a step in the right direction tonight.”