Charlotte Hornets

This kind of clunker too frequent for Hornets, despite James Borrego’s tinkering

Charlotte Hornets’ Tony Parker on loss to Utah Jazz

Charlotte Hornets guard Tony Parker played a season-high 32 minutes against the Utah Jazz. How he assessed the loss:
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Charlotte Hornets guard Tony Parker played a season-high 32 minutes against the Utah Jazz. How he assessed the loss:

When Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego said post-game his players were just “following them around” as far as guarding the Utah Jazz Friday, I would agree.

That was damningly accurate.

The Hornets’ offense has been ahead of its defense since training camp in Chapel Hill. Friday, in a 119-111 home loss to the Jazz, the gap between offense and defense looked huge.

The plan was to try to bottle up the lane because that is where the Jazz has been most effective offensively this season. However, the Hornets left the 3-point line so wide-open that it was as if they were invisible to Utah players. By this game’s conclusion, the Jazz had outscored the Hornets at the 3-point line 54-27. Good luck trying to win that way most nights.

Borrego and veteran point guard Tony Parker said post-game this wasn’t like most nights for this Jazz team. Utah entered Friday 28th among 30 teams in 3-point percentage at 31.9 percent. Only seven teams this season average fewer than the Jazz’s 10.05 3s made.

But sometimes you have to adapt in the moment. The Jazz nearly doubled that average, making 18 of their 40 attempts. Jae Crowder made 6-of-10 from 3, and Kyle Korver, just acquired in trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, made 4-of-6. Those combined 30 points from long distance were pretty much the difference on a night when the Hornets never led in a home game.

A fix-in-progress

By defensive efficiency rating, the Hornets are now dead-center among the 30 NBA teams, allowing 108 points per 100 opponent possessions. That makes a certain sense, since slightly more than a quarter through their season, the Hornets hover at .500 with an 11-11 record.

Borrego always thought this team had abundant offensive talent, and that’s proven to be the case. However, he has also been willing to take some risks defensively to accentuate the scoring potential, such as playing relatively small guards Parker and Kemba Walker together for considerable stretches or, of late, turning the backup center job over to Frank Kaminsky.

I get that. Borrego is playing to the strengths of the roster he inherited. Also, as Borrego described pre-game Friday, he’d rather take chances occasionally with his rotation than be reactive to the opposing roster’s strengths night-after-night.

That’s a fresh approach to old problems, and that’s healthy.

However, they must figure out how to be more consistent on defense — a lot more consistent, I’d say, based on some recent clunkers. The Jazz beating them from the 3-point line might be unexpected, but letting teams overachieve offensively isn’t a one-off problem: Sunday night they let a bad Atlanta Hawks team score 124. November 13, a bad Cavaliers team beat them in Cleveland scoring 113.

A bit alarming

After that loss in Atlanta, power forward Marvin Williams said if the Hornets continue to play defense as they did that night, the goal of reaching the playoffs won’t happen. I agree, and them responding by holding Milwaukee and Atlanta to 107 and 94 points in a two-game winning streak suggested they were back on track.

Borrego said some of the shortcomings defensively Friday related to center Cody Zeller’s rib contusion, which caused him to miss the entire second half.

“Cody is a big part of our defense with his activity and athleticism,” Borrego said. “He’s played (Jazz center Rudy) Gobert fairly well in the past, so when we lost him we lost a little bit of our thrust.”

I’m sure that’s true. I’m not so sure that excuses never leading a game at home against a Jazz team that is 11-12.

December is huge for the Hornets with nine of 14 games at home. We will know a lot about their playoff prospects by New Year’s Day. If they don’t guard any better at home than they did Friday, watch out.