Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford says he’s responsible. Guard Kemba Walker points the finger at himself and his fellow players.
Now that the blame game is out of the way, it’s time to again look at the main problem that continues to plague the Hornets, one that is sending them rapidly out of contention for a berth in the NBA playoffs.
In a word, defense, or the lack of it.
The lack of defensive focus, effort and toughness was there again Monday in a 115-109 loss against the Chicago Bulls and there’s not much reason to think it won’t be the same story Wednesday when the Hornets play at Indiana. Thanks to the lack of attention to defense, the Hornets (29-38) have been unable to find any kind of traction, remaining in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, four games out of eighth with 15 games remaining.
Those traits have become too much a part of this team, one that started the season with so much promise but is now limping to the finish.
We don’t have great toughness. We’re a finesse team. Hornets coach Steve Clifford
“It’s mistake after mistake,” Clifford lamented after the Bulls made 14 3-pointers against his team. “We play with no discipline defensively. We don’t. It’s been the story too many times this year. This is on me now. I have to do a better job of getting them to understand what we have to do. We do it at times.”
The pattern was established early against the Bulls, holding over from an overtime loss against the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday (the Hornets lost two games of a three-game home stand, making their playoff push more challenging now).
Clifford called a time out on the Bulls’ third possession when nobody rotated over to cover Chicago center Robin Lopez, who had laid the ball in easily. The Bulls went on to make 10 of their first 15 3-pointers and finished going 14-of-40.
It’s leaving everyone asking questions of themselves, but nobody has an answer.
The Hornets just dropped two of three in a crucial homestand.
“We’re just making too many mistakes as a whole,” said guard Kemba Walker. “We’re not executing our (defensive) game plan. When we’re good and right, we do what we have to do defensively and we’re hard to beat. But we’re not following the game plans for a full 48 minutes and that’s hurting us.
“It’s on us. We have to be more consistent as a group. We’re the ones out there playing and making mistakes. It’s us. We’ve got to find a way to be better.”
Clifford is also troubled by what he perceives is a lack of toughness. That’s hard to quantify, because the Hornets outrebound their opponents by a 52.8-52.1 margin.
But it’s something Clifford said his players need to recognize in themselves before it’s too late.
14 3-pointers made by the Bulls against the Hornets on Monday
“Look at our guys play,” Clifford said. “We have a lot of good things. We’re smart; we’re unselfish; we have good skill level. But we’re not physically intimidating. We don’t have great toughness. We’re a finesse team. What I’ve told them from day one is that if we’re not willing to admit that – change it and play with physicality – it’s going to be hard to win consistently. And it has been.
“You just can’t get beaten up every night on every loose ball, every long rebound and then not respond.”
Walker thought about what Clifford said.
“He sees it more than us, so I guess he’s right,” Walker said.
Under Clifford, the Hornets have a league-wide reputation for not beating themselves and making the most of what is usually a roster lacking a lot of offensive firepower. They’re not compensating for that this season.
“A coach’s job, by the way, is to get the team to understand what they have to do and get them to buy into doing it,” said Clifford. “I’m not blaming them; that’s my job. Everybody talks about connecting. I’m supposed to be good at connecting.
“I haven’t connected with this team because I know what the problems are. It’s not hard to see and yet the problems have not been fixed. That’s coaching. That’s my job.”