Shortly after a 102-78 victory over the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford set out to clear up a misconception:
That players do or don’t play because of who Clifford “likes.”
“People say, 'He doesn’t like P.J. (Hairston), he doesn’t like Lance (Stephenson).’ I just want to win,” Clifford said of not playing Stephenson again Wednesday. “Everybody doesn’t get what they want. It’s my responsibility” to put the best combinations on the floor.
The Hornets never trailed in this game, benefitting from a rarity of late – a fast start. They jumped out to a nine-point first-quarter lead after spending most of March playing from behind.
Stephenson, the high-profile free agent signing in July, was the only active Hornet not to play Wednesday. Clifford said he gave Stephenson the option whether to play in mop-up time and was fine with Stephenson deciding not to enter the game.
Stephenson hasn’t played in the last five halves, as Clifford has gone with rookie P.J. Hairston off the bench to add long-range shooting. So Clifford frequently gets asked about Stephenson’s situation.
“Lance is here because of me. I’m the one who wanted Lance,” Clifford said of the signing that came after the Utah Jazz matched an offer sheet the Hornets extended to Gordon Hayward. “It’s simply I can’t find a group where we play well with him out there.”
Hairston has made a comeback of sorts after playing in just one game between early February and late March. He shot 3-of-10Wednesday, but played solid defense in the first half against the Pistons and drew praise from Clifford post-game.
“He’s fit,” Clifford said. “He’s lost seven pounds in the last week.”
The Hornets need to start winning games in bunches to have any shot at the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They played dramatically better Wednesday than in Monday’sdeflating loss to the Boston Celtics, particularly on defense. Detroit (29-46) shot 35 percent from the field and 5-of-22 from 3-point range.
Power forward Marvin Webster led six Hornets in double-figure scoring with 18 points. He hit three of his six 3-point attempts.
“”We had a different energy out there tonight,” Williams said. “Boston played huge in a game like that, but we didn’t feel like we played our game. Tonight we wanted to establish ourselves at the defensive end, do well on the backboard and establish it at the offensive end.
Williams and his teammates were tired of having to overcome the numerous early double-digit deficits of late. Point guard Kemba Walker talked Monday about how exhausting that experience is.
“He’s 100 percent correct. You spend so much energy trying to get back once you’re down,” Williams said. “You make up 14, 15 points early and then sometimes you don’t have enough left to close it out.
“Tonight we did ourselves a favor against a really, really good defensive team.”
At 32-42 the Hornets are now in tenth place in the East, two games behind the Brooklyn Nets and 1 ½ games behind the Celtics. The Nets have already clinched a tiebreaker over the Hornets.
“We still have an opportunity to make it. We’ve got to keep playing,” Walker said. “It’s not over until it’s over.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell