Charlotte Hornets

How haphazard defense is becoming a troubling trend for ‘unreliable’ Hornets

Charlotte coach Steve Clifford reacts to a call during Tuesday’s game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, where the Hornets blew a 15-point lead en route to losing 118-113.
Charlotte coach Steve Clifford reacts to a call during Tuesday’s game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, where the Hornets blew a 15-point lead en route to losing 118-113. AP

Tuesday’s fourth-quarter box score should be required reading for every Charlotte Hornet. Consider it shock therapy.

The Hornets shouldn’t lose when scoring 113 points. They shouldn’t lose after establishing a 15-point lead. They shouldn’t lose when shooting 15-of-37 from 3-point range.

But they will seldom win playing defense as they did in that last 12 minutes: You can’t allow the New York Knicks to make six of their last eight 3-pointers, particularly at Madison Square Garden. You can’t commit seven fouls, resulting in seven Knicks free throws.

You can’t play so haphazardly, no matter how well you scored in the first half. That’s why the Hornets are on a three-game losing streak and are 5-6 following a 118-113 loss.

This road trip is ugly, particularly when you consider the last game is against a Celtics team in Boston that has won its last nine games. Friday in the TD Garden could be a mow-down if the Hornets don’t pick up their defensive concentration and remember these games are 48 minutes long.

New York Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis (6) drives past the Charlotte Hornets’ Michael Carter-Williams (10) for two of his game-high 28 points Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks won 118-113 after trailing by as much as 15 points. Frank Franklin II AP

The Hornets knew they were facing a legit Most Valuable Player candidate in Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis. He finished with 28 points, five rebounds and three blocked shots (including a comical Hornets possession in which Cody Zeller had his shot blocked three times in a row).

The Hornets accounted for Porzingis’s greatness. It was a far less accomplished forward – Doug McDermott – who put them away late. McDermott made all three of his fourth-quarter attempts from 3-point range, scoring 10 of his 20 points.

This is McDermott’s third NBA team in as many seasons (Chicago-Oklahoma City-New York). It’s been a while since his college nickname, “McBuckets,” so accurately described his performance. “McBuckets” made seven of his eight attempts from the field and all three of his 3-pointers.

“McDermott was the difference in the game, in my opinion,” said Hornets coach Steve Clifford. “Porzingis is going to get his. He got 11 right away. Marvin Williams did a good job on him, making it hard on him.

“McDermott was terrific.”

The Hornets’ defense allowed him to be terrific, and there’s been too much of that lately. This is a team that aspires to be one of the top five defenses in the NBA. They have no choice but to excel defensively, because despite what Tuesday’s scoring might imply, they are not a team assembled to win shootouts.

This game too much resembled a deceiving 126-121 home victory over the Milwaukee Bucks just before this road trip began. Clifford warned repeatedly after that game that his team couldn’t get away with sloppy defense, and win on anything close to a regular basis.

As rookie Malik Monk (21 points and five made 3-pointers) noted, the Hornets lost this one on “little things.” Closing out on shooters would be principal among those gaffs.

“Fourth quarter we stopped doing what we did to get the lead,” said center Dwight Howard (21 points on 9-of-11 shooting, plus nine rebounds).

Howard is right about that, but recognizing the problem is only half a step to the solution. Clifford said pre-game this is the most talented roster he’s coached with the Hornets.

True, once they get closer to an intact roster. However, Clifford’s teams have been known for being smart and meticulous. They haven’t looked that way lately.

The first quarter of an NBA season is establishing an identity. Lately, that identity for the Hornets has read “unreliable.”

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell