A “sometimes” team.
That is how coach Steve Clifford described his Charlotte Hornets of late. He says over the last three games they have played one half of the reliable defense that must be their trademark.
“Worst thing when you play 82 games is a ‘sometimes’ team. And let’s face it, that’s what we are,” Clifford said following a 113-106 home loss to the lottery-bound Sacramento Kings.
“Do we have room for error? Almost none. Do we have to play all-out 48 minutes a night with all-out enthusiasm, energy, toughness and intelligence? Yes we do …
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“If we’re going to play like this, forget the playoffs. We can’t win like this.”
The Hornets managed to beat the Detroit Pistons on Sunday despite giving up 60 points in the paint. They were flat in a home loss Monday to the Washington Wizards, but Clifford was willing to write that off to fatigue.
This was different. The Hornets were off Tuesday and Clifford expected a refreshed group ready to focus on detail. That didn’t happen and that’s why they fell to 28-35, a half-game behind the Miami Heat in the race for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Kings (22-41) took an early 13-4 lead. Though the Hornets caught up and eventually led this game, the flat way they started on defense was an invitation to the Kings’ primary scorers. Shooting guard Ben McLemore finished with 27 points, small forward Rudy Gay scored 26 and center DeMarcus Cousins added 20 points and 14 rebounds.
Clifford enumerated a series of defensive breakdowns in the second half that added up to this loss. He sees a pattern his team has to break, because it simply doesn’t have enough offensive firepower to play this way.
Worse yet, a team that has been injury-plagued all season lost center Al Jefferson in the second half to a sore right calf. Jefferson will be re-evaluated Thursday, but it sounded ominous when Clifford relayed that Jefferson felt a “pop” in his leg.
Jefferson’s health is beyond his teammates’ control. But their approach is something they can address.
“Recently we haven’t started games with the focus that we need on the basic things,” said shooting guard Gerald Henderson, who had a career-high 11 assists Wednesday. “Getting back on defense and having a readiness and energy to stop teams.
“We’ve started the last few games horribly and that sets the tone for the whole game.”
“It’s energy, it’s attention to detail. That’s not something that requires talent to do. Against a team like that, that gets out in transition and plays pretty free, that had to be a priority for us tonight.”
This game might have been won at the foul line, where the Hornets were outscored 25-16. The Hornets made a poor percentage of their free throws (16-of-26), but they also let the Kings do what they do best by committing shooting fouls. Gay, Cousins and McLemore combined for 17 free-throw attempts.
That wasted some strong performances. Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist finished with 23 points and nine rebounds. Backup center Bismack Biyombo had three blocks to go along with seven points and six rebounds.
“We’ve got to get back to being us,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “We need to tighten up on a few things and we’re aware of that.”
They are also aware of the stakes. Point guard Mo Williams (20 points, eight assists) conveyed how costly this loss felt.
“It was huge,” Williams said. “A big blow.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell