Cam Payne was headed for another ugly game and more criticism.
The point guard, starting in place of the injured Kris Dunn, had missed both of his first-half attempts and had one more assist (three) than turnovers (two) in 12 quiet minutes. He was an ugly -11 while the Bulls were hanging around at home against the Hornets in part because of his backup, Ryan Arcidiacono, and the second unit.
Then the second half happened. And the Cam Payne Game was born.
Payne scored a career-high 21 points, all coming on a career-best seven 3-pointers after halftime, before deferring to Zach LaVine down the stretch as the Bulls tallied their first win of the 2018-19 campaign.
"I felt like it was the ocean," Payne said after the game.
Payne's first half wasn't all that bad, given that the rest of the first group struggled as a whole - the starters were 8 of 25 at the half - and Payne was matched up against Kemba Walker, the league's second leading scorer. But Payne has become the punching bag for the Bulls' shortcomings, of which the list is long. And after a scoreless first half, and especially in one where Arcidiacono looked solid behind him, criticism was going to roll in.
But Payne put that all behind him after halftime. The buzzword with Payne from Fred Hoiberg, his teammates and even himself has been "aggressiveness." It's admittedly a cliche in basketball circles, especially for a team's point guard in today's NBA. But it's true with Payne, who played passive in road losses to Philadelphia and Dallas.
So despite the 0-for-3 start, Payne continued to shoot. Zach LaVine did most of the initiating offensively, working a pick-and-roll action with Wendell Carter Jr. that forced Walker to help weak side. That left Payne open in the corner multiple times to begin the period, and LaVine and Payne made the Hornets pay. LaVine assisted on four of Payne's five 3-pointers in the third quarter, which helped the Bulls extend their lead to as many as 11 points.
Payne sat for Arcidiacono to begin the fourth quarter, which coincided with the Hornets cutting the deficit from nine with Payne went to the bench to a one-point lead when he re-entered. But Payne again made his presence felt in an instant, connecting on his sixth 3-pointer from the left wing to put the Bulls back up a pair. Later in the period Payne stripped Nicolas Batum which led to a transition layup by LaVine that pulled the Bulls within three after a 5-0 Hornets run.
Payne then connected on his seventh triple after grabbing his own miss on a floater, dribbling back out and connecting over an out-stretched Walker. That tied the game at 105 apiece. It was also the last shot Payne attempted, as LaVine went to work down the stretch, scoring the Bulls' final six points, including two free throws with 0.5 seconds remaining.
It was a remarkable performance from the Bulls' new starting point guard, nearly matching Walker's 25 points. It was only one game, but it was a huge one for Payne's confidence. He'll start for the next 4 to 6 weeks while Dunn recovers from his MCL sprain, so to get a performance like this in a win against a quality opponent was the perfect start.
"It was a huge night for Cam, huge confidence booster," Hoiberg said. "You know, Cam works as hard as anybody on this team. It’s great to see that hard work pay off and it’s a confidence booster, something he can build on."
LaVine concurred with Hoiberg's sentiment, that Payne - despite all the criticism he's faced since being dealt for Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott two trade deadlines ago - is beginning to reap the rewards of his hard work.
"That’s what hard work is for," LaVine said. "There’s gonna be times where there’s ups and downs, people are going to be on you but you have to have trust in yourself and I trust him. He made great plays tonight."
For Payne, "it's 1-0." The Bulls will travel to Charlotte to face this same Hornets team and a Walker who likely isn't pleased he went 5-for-14 against one of the league's worst defenses. Payne will have his work cut out for him, and while he won't be asked to make seven 3-pointers every night, Wednesday was a step in the right direction when both he and the Bulls needed it dearly.
"It means a lot, especially in front of the fans. I'm glad we got the win. That’s really the main thing," he said. "Zach found me on that first one and it went in. Then he found me again and it went in again, so all they could say was 'keep shooting.' I did that and they kept falling for me."