Bulls drop 5th in a row, 118-103 to Hornets

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Dwight Howard returned from a first quarter injury to lead Charlotte over the Bulls.

The Hornets center was hurt after playing 10 minutes in the opening quarter of a 118-103 win over Chicago on Tuesday night.

He first said it felt as if a rib “popped out a little bit.”

“That happens a lot, it just comes out,” Howard said. “Really nothing I can do about it.

Howard wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t a back issue. Charlotte’s coach Steve Clifford said it was “back spasms” and the team called it a back strain.

“There’s nothing wrong with my back,” he said. “Just want to make sure I put that out there. I wasn’t really concerned with it being my back. I haven’t had a problem with that in the last two years; I knew it wasn’t my back. I’ve taken some hard falls and some hard hits, and that’s what happens.”

He returned to start the second half, however, and his 16 third-quarter points and all-around dominant play. He finished with 24 in the game.

Kemba Walker led the Hornets with 31 points to help the Hornets win a season-best fifth straight game.

Zach LaVine led seven Bulls players in double-digits with 21 points as Chicago (20-41) dropped its fifth consecutive game.

The Hornets suddenly hot shooting helped them continue their push to make the playoffs as they sank 53.7 percent of their field-goal attempts, and 42.9 percent from 3-point range.

Walker hit 11-of-19 attempts — including 6-of-10 of 3-pointers — while Howard missed only two shots in 12 attempts. Nicolas Batum also added 10 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds.

The teams were tied 51-51 at halftime, and the young Bulls were encouraged.

“We’re playing some pretty good stretches, we’re just not sustaining it right now,” Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg said.

It was difficult to sustain against a Charlotte team inspired by the return of Howard. The 6-11 center walked straight to the locker room after exiting the game in the first quarter.

He did not re-emerge until just before the second half tipped off.