Even before Al Jefferson left the Charlotte Hornets’ lineup on Dec. 30 with an injury, the Hornets’ once-promising season was already teetering on the brink.
The offseason addition of shooting guard Lance Stephenson from the Indiana Pacers had yet to develop as hoped, and trade rumors were growing as he left the lineup Dec. 20 with a pelvic strain.
With the Hornets’ biggest offensive threat, Jefferson, then joining Stephenson on the injured list and Charlotte mired in a five-game losing streak, any light at the end of the tunnel grew particularly dim.
Yet, five games – and wins – later, the Hornets have defied the odds, and while they remain without the use of two of their better players, they are playing some of their best basketball of the season.
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“I can’t really put it on one thing, but all of us just seem tied together as one – that’s it really,” said guard Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who missed 12 games himself early in the season with a foot injury.
“Our pace up and down the floor is faster and faster. Everybody is tied together on the defensive end and the offensive end.”
The statistics certainly provide plenty of evidence to support that claim.
During the Hornets’ current five-game winning streak, they are averaging 102.6 points a game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field. They were averaging 86.8 points a game on 36.5 percent shooting during the five-game losing streak that preceded it.
At the same time, Charlotte is holding opponents to 40.2 percent shooting from the field during its winning streak, while it allowed 43.0 percent shooting during the losing streak.
The practical effect of the Hornets’ improved performance was especially evident in their 110-82 dismantling of the New York Knicks on Saturday.
Charlotte led by as many as 45 points, shot 50 percent from the field and held the Knicks to 38.8 percent from the floor. The Hornets also outrebounded the Knicks 51-29.
Yes, the Knicks are perhaps the worst team in the NBA right now, but Charlotte’s ball movement and defensive intensity both appear to be at its season’s best.
“This is the best offense that we’ve played over these last number of games. Even in a couple of games we lost, I thought our offense was getting better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said.
“We have our way. We have to be good defensively, we can’t turn the ball over, and we need good ball movement – that ball needs to be moving.
“We have enough ways between shooting, driving the ball and having versatile guys who can (make plays), that we can get good shots.”
Perhaps the best news for the Hornets is the recent improvement comes with Charlotte still missing key players. Since before the season even started, the Hornets have been beset with nagging injuries.
Clifford believes the Hornets can be even better when they have all of their scoring and defensive options available.
“We haven’t had, literally, our whole team all year, from training camp on,” he said. “That’s been a factor, and we’ve played a lot of games early, so we haven’t had as much practice time.
“We have a stretch here where we’re home more a little bit, we can practice and hopefully make some more progress.”
Given the glimpse of the Hornets’ improvement in recent weeks, what would a fully healthy Hornets team be capable of?
“Man, it’s hard to even think about that,” said rookie P.J. Hairston, who tied his career high of 15 points against the Knicks. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”