Charlotte Hornets

A game easily lost proved to be an uplifting Charlotte Hornets victory

Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford worried about a pre- or post-All-Star break letdown that so far hasn’t happened.
Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford worried about a pre- or post-All-Star break letdown that so far hasn’t happened.

I’ve seen a lot of games in which the Charlotte Hornets played well enough to win this season, yet ended up losing.

So it’s only fair they should win Friday in Milwaukee, playing far short of what I’d call their “A” game.

Television analyst Stephanie Ready asked coach Steve Clifford post-game what he liked best about the Hornets’ 98-95 victory over the Bucks. Clifford replied with conviction, perseverance. When the Hornets fell behind by as many as 13 points in the second half, they didn’t hang their head or mope.

Instead they toughened up and made big stops and shots down the stretch. That is why, at 28-26 and in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, they are giving themselves a chance to qualify for the playoffs.

Clifford told a story pre-game about how Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers calls the games right before and after the All-Star break “silly.” As in, you’re going to shake your heads at results that seem so out-of-place.

Best illustration: The defending champion Golden State Warriors are typically as focused as they are talented. Yet they lost to the Portland Trail Blazers Friday 137-105. I’m sure Warriors coach Steve Kerr shook his head the entire car ride home from the game.

The Hornets, a team with little margin for error, performed just the opposite in the last game before an eight-day break and immediately following that same vacation. In the Feb. 10 game in Indianapolis – a place the Hornets hardly ever win – they rolled the Pacers 117-95. That was a costly victory, in that it ended small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s season to another labrum tear. But it also felt like a statement.

Then the Hornets flew to Milwaukee with Clifford wondering how they’d react to such a long time away from competitive basketball. And they came through against a team that had won six of its previous seven home games.

Four things I liked about what the Hornets did versus the Bucks:

Adapt to the opponent: Clifford said repeatedly this week that the difference when the Bucks beat the Hornets in Charlotte last month was how well Milwaukee exploited its size.

So Clifford did something different Friday, giving rookie Frank Kaminsky his first NBA start (at power forward). That made Marvin Williams the small forward and Nic Batum the shooting guard.

That allowed the Hornets to play the Bucks to a 52-52 tie. Then, when it became harder to score in the fourth quarter, Clifford drifted back toward his more traditional rotation, finding minutes for Jeremy Lin and Jeremy Lamb.

I don’t think this is a sea change – Kaminsky likely goes back to the reserves when the Hornets play the Nets in Brooklyn Sunday – but it was a smart wrinkle.

Play for “us,” not “me”: This could be an uneasy time in the Hornets’ chemistry, with center Al Jefferson coming back from six weeks off for knee surgery and Cody Zeller looking to retain the status he gained as the starting center in Jefferson’s absence.

I hear none of that. I’ll write about this in more detail in Sunday’s Observer, but it sounds like there is no turf war in the Jefferson-Zeller relationship, or throughout the Hornets’ big men.

The Hornets need both Zeller’s athleticism and Jefferson’s craftiness as a low-post scorer to excel the rest of the way. This can work in their mutual best interest.

Worry about your needs, not your wants: From what I understand, the Hornets plan to sign Jorge Gutierrez, an NBA development league point guard, to fill their open roster spot this weekend.

I get a lot of questions about whether the Hornets should pursue higher-profile names, like big men J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao. The sense I get is they don’t feel they need more big men, but need to make sure they have a reliable third option at point guard after Brian Roberts was traded to the Miami Heat (and later on to the Portland Trail Blazers).

Clifford didn’t force the issue with Courtney Lee: New Hornets shooting guard Lee didn’t get to Charlotte in time to complete his physical and practice Thursday morning. So, rather than throwing Lee into the Bucks game unprepared, Clifford told Lee to participate in shootaround, pick up what he could from the bench Friday, then get up to speed in practice Saturday in New York.

Throwing Lee into a game, when he couldn’t possibly be prepared to help his new team, would have been silly with a player you’ve penciled into the starting lineup.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer