There was a lot of chatter in the Charlotte Hornets’ locker room Friday after they hung on to beat the Brooklyn Nets, and most of it revolved around two topics:
What a big week this would be and why these Hornets can’t seem to avoid sluggish starts.
The schedule got their attention – right now they are in a swing of five games in eight days, with each opponent playoff-quality. And the slow starts were becoming a troubling trend.
So how to explain the Hornets jumping out to a 30-12 lead Monday against the Indiana Pacers, scoring off their first 12 possessions?
“Maybe we were just sick of Cliff reminding us,” center Spencer Hawes said of coach Steve Clifford’s frequent admonishments.
This was the best half of basketball the Hornets have played in a long time. They tied the franchise record for first-half scoring with 75 points and blew out the Pacers 122-100.
The Hornets are 5-1, the best start in franchise history. Six games aren’t much of a sample during an 82-game season, but it’s promising and exciting.
As Clifford said post-game, every team needs a vision of what it can be and this team knows it can be very good.
It has a star in point guard Kemba Walker and a defense that forced the Pacers into 18 turnovers, and a style that Monday was unselfish and seamless.
Shooting guard Nic Batum told me Monday was as good a ball movement as he can recall since arriving in Charlotte before last season. The Hornets made 49 percent of their shots with eight players reaching double figures.
Walker had his first double-double of the season, finishing with 24 points and 10 assists without playing a second of the fourth quarter. He made five of six 3-point attempts and continuously drove to the rim over much taller players. He even blocked a layup by Pacers star Paul George.
As to the ball movement, it’s telling that 30 of the Hornets’ 41 baskets came off assists. The Hornets are at their best when the ball is getting to the lane, and the Hornets scored 46 points in the paint.
They aren’t always going to shoot like this, but they must play like this. As Batum reminded, they face four games against the Utah Jazz, Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves. That stretch would challenge any team.
This would have been a perfect night for the Hornets, except for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist playing just 18 1/2 minutes because of a sore lower back. He left the game during the second quarter, then started the third quarter. Clifford saw him laboring and chose to sit him the rest of the game.
As Clifford said, he’s just too important to this team’s energy and defense to risk further injury. They lost him for all but seven games last season because of two severe shoulder injuries.
Kidd-Gilchrist played great at this game’s outset, scoring 10 points in the first four minutes and playing stifling defense on George. George finished with 10 points, shooting just 4-of-12 from the field. He might be one of the best dozen players in the NBA, so for him to be such a nonfactor speaks to Kidd-Gilchrist’s exceptional defense.
Clifford said there is no timetable on Kidd-Gilchrist, that this will be about how he feels in the coming days.
Backs are tricky things and Kidd-Gilchrist is a tremendous player. No reason to be reckless about something so important.