A line of demarcation has formed between the Charlotte Hornets and the top teams in the NBA’s Eastern Conference – and it goes deeper than what is now a combined 0-6 record this season against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics.
“There’s a reason why they’re the three best teams,” said coach Steve Clifford after his team lost 121-115 to the defending champion Cavaliers on Saturday at Spectrum Center. “Every team has a talent level. For us to beat the top teams, we’re going to have to be at or near our best. For (Cleveland on Saturday), for instance, they were really good, but they really didn’t have to be.”
The loss to the Cavaliers dropped the Hornets to 19-15, good enough to remain in first place in the Southeastern Division as they head to Chicago for a game Monday against the Bulls. Do the math: The Hornets are 19-9 against the rest of the league.
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The Brooklyn game should be no less important than the Cleveland game.
Hornets coach Steve Clifford
But Clifford said the Hornets need to treat games against marquee-type teams like the Cavs the same way they do games against the Bulls or the Brooklyn Nets, who broke a five-game losing streak by beating the Hornets Dec. 26.
“The players get a little bit more juiced for (the Cleveland) game, but, look, the best teams, the great teams, may get up for a (national) TV game, but it’s every game and that’s what we need to get to,” Clifford said. “If you’re a team that’s pretty good and you don’t understand that, you’re not going to get to be (really) good. It’s every game.”
Clifford’s point is that each game must be approached the same way, with intensity and commitment, whether it’s against the Cavaliers or the Nets. And he’s not seeing that kind of consistency from his team.
“The Brooklyn game should be no less important than the Cleveland game,” Clifford said.
The Hornets are 0-6 against the Cavs, Celtics and Raptors and 19-9 against the rest of the NBA.
The Hornets got off to another slow start against the Cavs, something from which they couldn’t recover. The Hornets allowed Cleveland to score 71 points in the first half, a similarly egregious defensive performance as the one that saw the Los Angeles Lakers score 73 in the opening 24 minutes 11 days ago. Charlotte rallied to beat the sub-.500 Lakers 117-113.
Saturday, Cavs forward Lebron James did most of the damage, scoring 10 consecutive points during one first-half stretch on his way to 32 points, nine assists and six rebounds.
“We were not locked into that,” Clifford said of the Hornets’ defensive effort. But then Clifford conceded there’s usually nothing much that can be done against James.
66.7 Percent of 3-pointers made by the Cavs in the first half against the Hornets on Saturday.
“He has four 3 (-pointers) off the dribble and there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “You can’t block his shot. You double-team him and he makes you pay.”
The Hornets beat Monday’s opponent, the Bulls, on Dec. 23 in Charlotte. Chicago is one of those fair-to-middling teams in the East that Charlotte is trying to rise above – if not yet to the level of Cleveland, Toronto and Boston.
“We just have to be better,” said Hornets guard Kemba Walker, who scored 37 against Cleveland. “Forget any positives that came out of the (Cavs’) game. We lost and we have to be better.”