Charlotte Hornets

This ‘New Age’ Steve Clifford remembers how to scream. The result: a Hornets record.


A “New Age” Steve Clifford, talking about meditation and yoga?

Ummm, some of the Charlotte Hornets players got quite a kick out of how their coach says he’s evolving.

“I would pay to see that man meditate or do yoga,” power forward Marvin Williams said with a laugh, after his team beat the Washington Wizards 133-109 Wednesday in Clifford’s return from a medical leave.

Clifford is serious about change. His doctors have warned him it’s crucial he changes not only how he works, but how he lives. The severe headaches that sidelined him since Dec. 4 were diagnosed as a direct result of sleep deprivation. As Clifford’s neurologist warned him, this was his body screaming, “Enough!”

You either change in these circumstances or change is forced upon you. Clifford loves coaching NBA basketball, not so much for the money or the fame, but because it so fulfills him to coach the best of the best. As he put it pregame, NBA basketball players are like Navy SEALs, and it’s an honor to be chosen to be their boss.

No one knew what to expect when Clifford returned. He talked about delegating more responsibility to his staff. The doctors told him he needed to start shutting down his mind more at night, maybe turning off a game on television and instead flipping to a movie or some other distraction. Or as Clifford described, obsess a little less on how to get Jeremy Lamb a couple more high-quality shots per game.

If this is a new Clifford, the players like the portion of his approach that carried over from before: Intense, demanding, thriving in the minute-by-minute decision-making that makes NBA coaching such an intellectual and emotional rush.

“Even when we were up 25, he was still screaming at us; he wasn’t happy,” said guard Nic Batum. “He wasn’t happy after the game (either). I missed him a lot.”

How would Batum sum up Clifford’s return to the bench?

“Screaming at the refs and screaming at us,” Batum continued. “He wasn’t happy about plays and playing defense. It feels like he never left.”

A Charlotte Hornets fan holds up a large photo of coach Steve Clifford during Wednesday’s game against the Washington Wizards. Clifford returned to the bench after being out for several weeks for a health issue. Chuck Burton AP

Associate head coach Stephen Silas did a solid job filling in for 21 games, when the Hornets went 9-12. Silas had a brutal task, in that no one knew how long Clifford would need away from the team. Interim coaching is difficult, but that was a whole different dynamic; a sort of long-term substitute teacher, with no set end point.

Clifford carried over some things Silas established, particularly a playing rotation that was slightly tighter than when Clifford left. Silas reduced minutes for rookies Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon. Neither played until the last four minutes Wednesday, long after the winner of this game was decided.

If there was a tweak attached to Clifford’s return, it was leaning more heavily early on Batum and starting point guard Kemba Walker. Offense is always easy when a team shoots well; the Hornets finished this game 49 percent from the field and 48 percent from 3-point range. But that wasn’t the only reason the Hornets set a franchise record with 77 first-half points.

“The (offensive) flow was good. It was the way he called the game,” Batum said of Clifford. “In the first five minutes, he called plays for Kemba and me to run the team. That got us going. Maybe that’s what made it so good to have him back.”

Williams said that play-calling was important because it cleared up any uncertainty how this team would function the second half of the season. They are now 18-25, and the five-game homestand that started Wednesday should be crucial to whether the Hornets can return to playoff contention.

Williams’ assessment: Walker and Batum are this team’s most skilled players, so everyone else has to follow their lead. “I feel like that’s how he’s always coached,” Williams said.

To repeat, the offense looked great Wednesday because virtually every shot fell through the rim in the first half. But there were also elements that can have carryover value. The Hornets outscored the Wizards in the lane 50 to 30. That means the offense was run inside-out, the way Clifford wants. The shot doesn’t have to be taken in the lane, but the best way to create quality spot-up jump shots is to force opposing defenses to contract into the paint.

Clifford sounds so much healthier than he did before his hiatus. Now it’s time to figure out if the Hornets can be renewed as well.

“It feels good. Physically, I feel really good,” Clifford said. “But we need to win, so that’s the best thing.”

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell