Eight isn’t enough. Why that number has affected the Hornets and makes them wonder

Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez/mrodriguez@charlotteobserver.com

An all-out celebration was under way and about the only thing missing once the ball swished through the net were a few white towels being twirled in the air from bystanders on the bench.

Mason Plumlee’s 14-foot left-handed jumper punctuated an impressive fourth quarter by the Charlotte Hornets, ensuring Thursday night wasn’t going to mirror their previous two shorthanded, lackluster outings. LaMelo Ball patted Plumlee on the chest and the center’s euphoric teammates nearly couldn’t contain themselves, even if it’s not the first time they’ve actually witnessed that exact stroke.

“I mean, (shoot), he only works on it every day,” Terry Rozier said. “It’s about time he made one and took one.”

Rozier couldn’t help but deliver a one-liner about Plumlee’s form and crack a few jokes at the big man’s expense, given there hadn’t been many nights like this during the past three plus-months. For once, the Hornets were as close to whole as they’ve been in a while and that played an integral role in a 111-96 victory against Chicago at Spectrum Center.

LaMelo Ball returned from a three-game absence nursing a sprained left ankle and right wrist soreness, and Gordon Hayward’s left hamstring was good enough for him to play after missing the past two games. Their reappearances provided an obvious boost and injected the Hornets (14-36) with some much-needed depth.

Transforming a two-point, fourth-quarter deficit into a lead as large as 15 that was aided by a 14-3 spurt allowed the Hornets to ponder what might have been if their season didn’t get wrecked by injuries. That’s why they were thrilled to actually trot out an intact starting unit for just the eighth occasion all season.

“It’s great,” Plumlee said. “Obviously, having G. (Gordon) and Melo, just having everybody, it’s a big lift. And that’s not a knock on anybody who was filling in. We have a lot of good players, but obviously, G. is just a different level of player. So, to have him back, obviously Melo, he just changes our whole offense. So, hopefully, we can keep it together down the stretch.”

“It just shows we’re capable. I feel like we’ve known that all along, but it’s just one game. So, now it’s just about wins. We’ve got to win as many as we can to give ourselves a chance.”

Though Ball’s shot was short on most of his attempts, leading to him knocking down only 2 of the 15 he hoisted, the Hornets’ star point guard still recorded his 10th double-double in 23 games this season. He did other things to compensate for the struggles from the floor, compiling 11 rebounds and eight assists.

Getting to the free-throw line a season-high 10 times and sinking a huge 3-pointer midway in the fourth quarter to push the Hornets’ edge to seven points and help hold off the Bulls were also positive signs for Ball.

“Just to be able to be back out here and play basketball again, it’s great,” Ball said. “It’s a great feeling being able to touch the rock.”

Ball’s impact is crystal clear and it’s why the Hornets need to have him healthy to be successful. Even when he doesn’t shoot well, he leaves imprints on the action.

“He’s a difference maker,” coach Steve Clifford said. “He puts so much pressure on the defense every time he touches the ball. Even for him, as good as he is, rarely is a guy going to come back and be in rhythm.

“He started driving the ball and got to the free throw line. He’s terrific, a terrific player.”

One that took pressure off the Hornets’ other starters, resulting in Rozier pouring in 28 points and Plumlee collecting his 19th double-double of the season. Hayward tossed in the most points he’s had since netting 15 on Dec. 23 in Los Angeles against the Lakers, and also came up with an emphatic rejection of Chicago’s noted leaper Zach LaVine on a fastbreak finger roll.

It’s been such a rarity for the Hornets to have their projected game-opening unit together, and the accompanying struggles led to TNT pulling the plug on their lone scheduled appearance on the network Thursday night. Knowing the matchup between Ball and his older brother, Lonzo, wasn’t going to materialize because the the Bulls guard is out working back from left knee surgery didn’t help matters.

There’s also a good likelihood ESPN will yank the Hornets’ only remaining national television date – Feb. 10 at Boston – in the coming days. Consider it a casualty of a lost 2022-23 campaign that features a minuscule 3-5 record when Ball, Rozier, Hayward, Plumlee and PJ Washington are all available and on the floor together to begin the game.

“We know we didn’t see it as much as we’d like to this season due to injury, but it feels good to finally have the starting five that was set out to be the starting five at the beginning of the season and playing well,” Rozier said. “It just makes you think about a lot of things. But obviously, we don’t dwell on the past, we move forward. Just focus on how we can get better from here on out.”