Last week, after the Charlotte Hornets beat the Milwaukee Bucks at home, their coach was in no mood for celebration.
Steve Clifford felt his team had ignored its priorities and somehow got away with it, topping the Bucks 126-121. They contained NBA leading scorer Giannis Antetokounmpo that night, but they let Khris Middleton pile up a career-high 43 points.
That’s the sort of deceiving game that can breed bad habits. Those habits did in the Hornets Sunday on the road, 112-94 against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Wolves, on a five-game winning streak and 7-3, have magnificent firepower. Karl-Anthony Towns is as versatile as big men can be. Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler are gifted wing plays. Point guard Jeff Teague has picked apart the Hornets for years.
The Hornets have nothing like that offensive talent. They have to come ready to play elite defense, and often they have this season. Not Sunday, not even close.
They allowed the Timberwolves to shoot 10-of-24 from 3-point range. Wiggins made eight of his 12 shots from the field. Teague blew up Charlotte’s coverages for 18 points and 12 assists.
Even when the Timberwolves missed, they were dynamic, with 12 offensive rebounds translating to 12 second-chance points. The Wolves outscored the Hornets 40-23 in the second quarter, and a team that in the past has been known to let opponents back into games owned the second half.
Obviously, Clifford didn’t like the results, but the body language and the misguided priorities bothered him just as much postgame.
“Our team is not overpowering offensively,” Clifford said. “We can get to be very good. But defensively, we can be great. That starts with the right attitude. And tonight, we had it totally backward.”
The Hornets entered this game eighth among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency. But that night they got away with such inefficiency defensively against the Bucks hung with Clifford Sunday.
“These first 10 or 20 games, you establish who you are. Again, we can’t pick and choose (how to play). There is a lot of parity in this league; more than most years. There are a lot of teams talentwise that are just like us.”
Right now, the Hornets define average at 5-5. They are 0-2 so far on the four-game road trip, with games remaining against the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics.
“The teams that establish a way to play, and do it every night: Those are the teams that are going to take off,” Clifford said. “I saw a lot of frustration (where) you think you’re open, you don’t get the ball, so you don’t play defense. Or you miss an open shot, and you don’t play defense.
“And so we’re a step behind, we’re fouling, and our coverages are poor. It’s not going to work that way.”
Fouls troubled Clifford most of all: They committed 24, resulting in 30 Wolves free throws. The Hornets have the best free throw-differential in the NBA, which made Sunday an outlier.
Power forward Marvin Williams is a key veteran on this team, sort of the Hornets’ in-locker room conscience. What did he see?
“Offensively we played more than well enough. But defensively, we just weren’t there,” said Williams. “Just a lack of concentration from all of us. There are times when we’ve shown how good we can be. Then, there are times you can see how we can be bad.
“We’ve got to get back to concentrating on getting stops, and executing at the other end.”
Do that soon, or a 0-4 road trip is five days away.