Charlotte Hornets

Hornets shut down an MVP favorite, beat Bucks ... but here’s the biggest takeaway

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo scored a season-low in points against the Hornets on Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean the team played good defense.
Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo scored a season-low in points against the Hornets on Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean the team played good defense. AP

Marvin Williams wants to make this clear, so that there’s no misunderstanding.

“You’re not stopping them, and I really want to make that clear,” Williams said after Wednesday night’s 126-121 win over the Milwaukee Bucks. “You’re not stopping those guys. You just try to make life difficult for them, try to take away maybe one or two things that they like to do.”

But “those guys” Williams is referring to aren’t all the Bucks, but one Buck in particular – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee’s do-everything man and the early favorite for NBA MVP – and the few other elite players throughout the league like him. Steph Curry. Russell Westbrook. LeBron James. Those guys.

Marvin Williams said he did his best to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, but there’s no stopping players of his caliber. Jason E. Miczek AP

On Wednesday night, Williams and the Hornets shut down one of “those guys,” Antetokounmpo, for the first time this season. Antetokounmpo scored a season-low 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting, including missing both his 3-point attempts.

And yet, coach Steve Clifford still had every right to emphasize better defense after that game.

“That’s not a defensive game that’s going to lead to consistent success in this league,” Clifford said. “That defense isn’t going to work.”

While Antetokounmpo, clearly exhausted from his battle the night before against the Oklahoma City Thunder, couldn’t carry the load offensively, his teammates buried the Hornets. Khris Middleton had 43 points on better than 50 percent shooting, including five 3-pointers. Malcolm Brogdon had 20 points on similarly efficient shooting, and Tony Snell went 6-of-7 for 17. So, yes, the Hornets kept Antetokounmpo quiet, but the rest of their defense wasn’t nearly up to Clifford’s standards.

Clifford has stressed throughout the offseason and early games this year that to maximize this team’s talent, to make it to the playoffs and even win a playoff series, something the franchise hasn’t done since 2001, the defense must be stellar. Specifically, Clifford has said that the team needs to be in the NBA’s top 10 offensively and top 5 defensively.

Wednesday night, they showed they only had half of that down pat.

“It’s tough,” rookie Dwayne Bacon, who guarded Antetokounmpo for stretches, said Wednesday night. “Some nights its going to be like tonight, when they go off.”

There are silver linings to Wednesday’s poor defensive outing, the most obvious of them that the Hornets still won.

Rookie Malik Monk finally broke out in the fourth quarter, and he helped the team out-score the Bucks even when that defense was lacking. Also, the team is still 10th in the NBA in team defensive rating and tops in defensive rebounding. And of course, it’s a long season, so there’s plenty of time for the team to improve, especially as key players such as Nic Batum, Michael Carter-Williams, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist return from injury.

But Clifford’s message is clear. Performances like that, even when “those guys” don’t get it going, aren’t going to cut it for a team with playoff aspirations.

So Friday when the Hornets travel to San Antonio to take on the Spurs, they’ll face another of the NBA’s elite players in Kawhi Leonard. Only this time, they won’t be able to count on him missing shots like Antetokounmpo did – they’ll have to play the gritty, dedicated defense that Clifford preaches.

Or at least do what Williams says and try their best to.

“What you want to try to do is you want to make things as tough as possible,” he said. “That’s just the easiest way to slow them down, but they’re too great to stop.”

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks