• Hawks at Hornets

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    “It’s time that we have That Talk, lil’ Hooper!”


    Familiar with a kid that confidently pedals down the street as he’s learning to ride a bike, only to wobble and crash once he looks over their shoulder to discover there’s no parent guiding them from the rear? That’s been the season to date for the Charlotte Hornets, who host the Atlanta Hawks tonight (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, Fox Sports South in CLT) at the Cable Box while trying to avoid extending their losing streak to 8 games.

    With Panthers Mania (and Clemson Clamoring) going on, there hasn’t been much buzz for the Hornets in the Carolinas these days, anyway. But for a minute there, things were looking up for the Purple and Teal.

    After getting edged by the Hawks on back-to-back games to fall to 0-3, a mini-roll had Charlotte rising to 10-7 by the end of November. Kemba Walker was red-hot that month (48.3 FG%, 42.4 3FG%, 5.0 APG, 2.1 TO/game). Walker had two catalysts in Nicolas Batum (Nov.: 43.0 3FG%, 17.5 PPG, 5.9 RPG, and 4.7 APG) and Marvin Williams (Nov.: 42.6 3FG%, 6.5 RPG) working the forward spots and providing solid wing defense in the absence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Plus, he had a nice change-up to his fastball, with Jeremy Lin coming off the bench.

    Surging into the upper echelon of the wild-and-woolly Eastern Conference, there was the sense that Kemba was finally turning the corner, and carrying the Hornets with him. Then, Al Jefferson had to go and screw up all the mojo.

    The Hornets’ gravitational force at the pivot strained his calf early in a game on November 29, and was sitting it out when he got popped for violating the NBA’s don’t-get-caught-smoking-weed-three-times rule, resulting in a five-game suspension once he healed. Al Jefe was brought back slowly off the bench for a couple games after Christmas. But then, Charlotte received another lump of coal when he announced he’d need arthroscopic surgery and another six weeks off after tearing the meniscus in his right knee.

    Jefferson has never been accused of being a defensive stalwart (58.3 opponent at-rim FG% when he’s defending, highest this season among players with opponents taking 5+ at-rim shots). But his space-clogging, his time-eating, and his ability to tenderize opposing bigs at the other end of the floor tended to give the Hornets a leg up over the course of 48 minutes. Now, what is Plan B? More than two weeks later, they’re still sorting it out.

    In past seasons, the Hornets could turn to the oven-mitted prospect Bismack Biyombo to patrol the rim, but the Hornets’ brass did not want to risk going over the cap to grant him a qualifying offer over the summer, and now he’s charming fans and teammates up in Toronto. These days, the Hornets have to turn to a Cody Zeller, Spencer Hawes, Tyler Hansbrough and rookie Frank Kaminsky up front, a frontcourt platoon that brings all the pizzazz of Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread.

    After being told he’d likely miss the entire regular season, MKG has been cleared to return to practice. His return to the gameday floor can’t arrive soon enough, though, as both Batum and Marvin regressed defensively after starting off so well. “Moar offense!” was the selected defensive approach by the Hornets to compensate, leading to a brief 4-game win streak in December buoyed by Batum, Walker and the Jeremies (Lin and Lamb). Then the bottom dropped out, especially after Kemba cooled and Batum started missing games with a sprained toe.

    The Hornets (17-20) have lost to some hot teams during this 7-game skid, but during their recent West Coast swing they also stopped the 9-game-slide of the throwing-in-the-towel Suns (Phoenix’s only win without Eric Bledsoe) and made the Kenneth Faried-less Nuggets look competent. They’re like Wile E. Coyote running full speed after the Road Runner, before forlornly noticing they’ve run right off a cliff.

    Did somebody say Cliff? “We don’t think about defense to start the game. We think about scoring.” That’s not Steve Clifford’s game plan, that’s just the Hornets’ coach’s observation about what has been going wrong. Referring to the sieve around the perimeter, Clifford noted to the Charlotte Observer after his team flamed out in Phoenix, “A lot of it is just one-on-one. You don’t have to make a stop, but you have to make it hard (to score) so we can help.”

    During this slide only the Suns have posted a worse defensive efficiency than these helpless Hornets (112.1 opponent points per 100 possessions, 29th in NBA since Dec. 30), while their own wayward shooting has proven inadequate as cover (45.1 eFG%, 26th in NBA since Dec. 30).

    What’s wild is the Bug Bigs are doing their job on the interior (since Dec. 30: league-low 29.4 opponent points in the paint; 46.2 opponent FG% in-the-paint, lowest in NBA). Yet opponents have taken a league-high 22.9 threes above-the-break, with good reason (league-high 46.9 opponent 3FG% above-the-break since Dec. 30; Cleveland’s 39.6% is second-worst). Five of Charlotte’s last seven foes sunk at least 44% of their three-point attempts, a mark that the Hornets themselves surpassed just once in their last 20 contests.

    Having received a multi-year contract from Michael Jordan (perhaps a tad too hastily) just last month, Clifford’s job seems safe despite the downturn. But while he’s got his finger on the pulse of the problems, he can’t seem to find the elixir to cure them.

    P.J. Hairston’s puts up his best fights with teenagers at the Y, but Clifford has little choice but to rely on him (34 starts, 121.2 D-Rating), Walker, and the Jeremies to figure out how to stop getting burned on opponents’ screens and dribble hand-off plays. Hairston provides height but perhaps not the know-how at this point, so Clifford may start turning more to third-year guard Troy Daniels (48.1 3FG%) for better two-way production at the 2-spot.

    All is not lost yet for the Hornets, who remain just 3 games below .500, are 13-7 at home, and sit just 2.5 games behind the 8th-seed in the East. They have eight at-or-below-.500 opponents on the docket before the end of the month, and a victory at home tonight can springboard a quick turnaround back toward the middle of the East’s postseason pack.

    Al-ite has gone from Al-Lite to Al-ive! Key to the Hawks’ bounceback in the past two games has been the mastery of Al Horford (25.5 PPG, 66.7 FG%, 4.5 O-Rebs per game, 9.5 RPG vs. PHI and CHI), a sight for many Hawk fans’ sore eyes. Atlanta’s ballhandlers are finally figuring out you have to feed a cold and have been looking him on the low block. Atlanta (23-15) is a stout 14-1 this season (including 2-0 against Charlotte) when Sorta Big Al gets at least 12 shots up and hits at least half of them.

    Meanwhile, Horford is realizing he enjoys a speed-and/or-smarts-advantage against most opposing centers. In accordance with the Hawks’ perimeter shooting woes, Horford has been crashing the offensive boards lately (21 O-Rebs in last six games; 20 in prior 15 games) and still getting back in position to make defensive plays (4 steals, 7 blocks in last two games).

    Horf contributed a season-high 10 defensive rebounds on Nov. 1 in his last trip to Charlotte, plus 3 blocks. The Hawks are 9-2 this season when Horford secures 7 or more defensive rebounds, and 6-1 when he returns at least three opponent shots to sender. An active Horford on both ends takes so much pressure off of Paul Millsap (20.0 PPG, 3.5 O-Rebs/game, 3.8 APG, 2.4 SPG, 1.6 BPG, 48.8 FG% last 8 games), producing a tandem that leaves opposing bigs unsure whether they’re coming or going.

    While Zeller will start and attack the rim as often as possible, Clifford will try countering more with Kaminsky and Hawes, who can similarly stretch the floor when they’re shooting well outside the paint. Tiago Splitter continues to struggle with finishing around the rim (2-for-10 FGs last 2 games) in his return from injury, but Atlanta needs him to improve as a defender and continue drawing extra points from the free throw line (83.9 FT%).

    The Bazemore clan is likely to be front-and-center once again at Time Warner Cable Arena, and Batum and Marvin will be tasked with keeping Kent Bazemore from producing even more heroics in front of his fellow Carolinians. Baze’s fourth-quarter baskets (among his team-high 19 points) stemmed the visiting Hornets’ rally from 14 points down back on October 30. Two nights later in Charlotte, his triple and free throws in the closing minutes (among his team-high 20 points) secured a fourth-quarter Hawks comeback. Defensively, Bazemore and the returning Thabo Sefolosha (wrist) will have to keep Marvin (8-for-13 3FGs vs. ATL) and Batum from offsetting Atlanta’s perimeter production.

    Jeff Teague (5-for-9 FGs vs. CHI on Saturday; 45.5 3FG% on the road) and Kyle Korver (3-for-6 3FGs vs. CHI on Saturday) are each dealing with nagging ankles, but they and Dennis Schröder (combined 2-for-17 3FGs vs. CHA) have to find and make open three-point shots in order to get the Hornets unglued early.

    Walker goes from Texas Ranger to Carolina Gunner whenever he finds his team playing from behind, so the Hawks’ perimeter defenders must deny Batum the ball early in the clock while pressuring Walker into premature hero-ball decisions. While Kemba and Lin keep their ballhandling turnovers down, their questionable forced-shot volumes will create ample transition opportunities for Atlanta. Exploit Charlotte's shortcomings early and often, and it won't take long for the Hornets to wonder where the training wheels went.

    Let’s Go Hawks!


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