'They just came out and punched us in the mouth'

Season crashes with a thud in Indianapolis as Charlotte Hornets were 'bullied' by Indiana in the play-in tournament
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Something was missing.

From the opening tip, the Charlotte Hornets just didn't appear to have it. The intensity wasn't there. The passion wasn't readily evident. The body excitement typically evident in a playoff game didn't exactly jump out. They were staring at a double-digit deficit in the blink of an eye. 

"I can't explain it," Cody Zeller said. "Especially in a big game like this, this is disappointing because it’s obviously win or go home. So you would think that's when you have the most energy. Any amount of energy that you’ve got left you should be able to leave out there. So it’s disappointing. But I don’t have any answer for that." 

Carved up and forced to scramble defensively virtually all night, the Hornets' season ended with a thud at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday. They never responded, failing to match Indiana's intensity from the outset in their 144-117 loss in the play-in tournament. 

"We just got our ass whooped today," Miles Bridges said. "There's nothing else to it. They played like they wanted to be in the playoffs and we didn't."

"They bullied us. If we would've came out with more physicality, more of a sense of urgency. But s---, I mean there was nothing we can do."

That sentiment was shared by more than one.

"They just came out," Zeller said, "and punched us in the mouth."

"Their veterans brought great presence to the game and experience," coach James Borrego said. "They punched us in the mouth and kept going."

The big question, of course, is why couldn't the Hornets have a better showing, knowing what was on the line and how they were given a second chance since they didn't sew up the eighth seed despite their many opportunities to do so? This, after all, was a team that skidded into the postseason, dropping five straight. Conceivably, there should have been more of a laser-like focus immediately, particularly with this being the franchise's first postseason game since 2016.  

Was it the inexperience of a roster that has first-, second and third-year players accounting for 60 percent of the minutes not quite understanding what it takes to match the opposition's output, particularly on the road? Did that play a huge role in the Hornets coming out so flat?

"I don't want to give our guys that excuse," Borrego said. "Obviously, they have a number of guys, All-Star caliber players that have been in these moments before. They knew what this game felt like. They had the urgency, they had the focus, the poise. They were not phased or rattled by the moment and this is just something you have to learn over time. This is a learning block for us and we’ve got to learn from it and grow. Hopefully next time we are in this position we respond better. But they played like a veteran group, they played like a tougher group. They weren't fazed by the moment."

Just like that, it's offseason mode for the Hornets. They'll have decisions to make that will shape the direction of the team for the next few seasons, guarding against the deficiencies that were exposed during the tail end of the season. Since the calendar flipped to April, stringing together solid performances became more troublesome by the week and it's partially why the Hornets went out with a whimper, capping off a season-ending losing stretch that put a stain on a challenging season ripe with numerous peaks and valleys.

"This summer," Zeller said, "it's tough not to only remember the last game, I don’t know what we lost, eight of nine or nine of 10 or whatever is ... I think that's what I’m going to remember. We had a good start to the season. Obviously, a lot of injuries. Losing Gordon (Hayward) was huge. We lost LaMelo (Ball) for a stretch. I was out a little bit to start the season. But I thought we had enough talent. So it’s disappointing to see our season end early. I think we had enough talent to at least be in that playoff mix -- six (seed), seven at least, playing in the first round." 

Instead, they will spend the next few months wondering what could have been. 

"These are the moments that you learn from, including myself," Borrego said. "So we’ve got to get better and we will get better."