Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets seeing early signs of better ball movement

Nicolas Batum (5) says he’ll always pass up a good shot to find a teammte a great shot.
Nicolas Batum (5) says he’ll always pass up a good shot to find a teammte a great shot. AP

If every game of their season followed the pattern of Sunday’s preseason victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, the Charlotte Hornets would be just fine with that.

The Hornets beat the Clippers 106-94. (They play a rematch at 8 a.m. EDT Wednesday on NBATV.) After the game, Clippers coach Doc Rivers said the Hornets played more “spirited” than his team. Probably so, but that’s not what made the Hornets’ performance stand out.

It was the unselfish, fluid ball movement that so pleased the players, particularly those who were a carryover from last season’s 33-49 record. Twenty-two of the Hornets’ 40 baskets were assisted.

So even if center Al Jefferson didn’t personally play well (4-of-11 for eight points plus six rebounds), he was thrilled with the results against a big, physical Clippers roster. He says the additions of Nic Batum and Jeremy Lin have been big already.

“Jeremy is a great point guard and Nic is very smart about playing with big men,” Jefferson said. “He’s so smart about the game he makes us look smart, too.”

Hornets coach Steve Clifford has asked Jefferson to try some different things offensively this season. Rather than always defaulting to posting up to the left of the basket, Clifford wants Jefferson to also run some pick-and-roll action with Batum. Clifford wants to run much of the offense through Batum to utilize his decision-making.

“What he and I have talked about is developing a short roll game where he can get a jump shot, too. People miss what a good (overall) basketball player he is because we post him so much,” Clifford said of Jefferson. “Our best chance to be effective offensively is him getting his touches in the post, but also getting more involved in the pick-and-roll game.”

The Hornets acquired seven new players in the off-season. The incentive behind all those changes was to improve offense: not just more scorers but more passers.

“They definitely promote ball movement. We’ve never been selfish, but it starts with how many guys on the floor can create (a need for the defense to give) help,” Clifford said. “Jeremy does that with his pick-and-roll game and Nic does it in a lot of ways. You get them the ball and they make the right play and they do that naturally. Those things are contagious.”

Batum spent his first seven NBA seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, where he played with one of the league’s best-scoring big men in LaMarcus Aldridge. His last two seasons he also played with emerging star point guard Damian Lillard.

In one of those picks-and-rolls with Jefferson on Sunday, Batum passed up a 16-foot jump shot to feed Kemba Walker for an open 3-pointer across the court. Walker missed the shot, but Batum says he still made the right decision.

“I played in an offense last year that was second in points and that was about moving the ball all the time,” Batum said. “That’s how the Spurs win their rings. It’s beautiful to watch, man. We’re doing that right now in these first few (exhibition) games.

“We have the people in Al and Cody (Zeller) and Spencer (Hawes) to finish those plays. I’d rather someone else on my team get a great shot than get a good shot for myself.”

Jefferson will still be the centerpiece of the Hornets’ offense, but his touches will be incorporated into a more flowing, faster-paced approach. To that end, Jefferson lost more than 20 pounds in the off-season. His teammates say they can see a big difference in him from the weight loss.

“He’s been really helping us the way he’s been getting up and down the floor. He’s been getting straight into (the offense), so we don’t have to run so many plays for him,” Walker said. “I see a huge difference: He’s moving really well, he’s not as sore after practice. He’s in great shape and that’s going to help him as well as us.”

Jefferson feels so differently this off-season that he’s kicking himself for not losing weight years ago.

“Last year I was so tired like I had a (huge weight) on my back. It feels totally different now with my knees, ankle and foot,” Jefferson said. “And it was a lot easier this year to get in (game) shape when you come in lighter. I don’t think I felt this good at any time last year.”

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell

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