I’ve always been wary of calling the Charlotte Hornets a playoff team this season. Just too many injuries, too much adversity, too little chance for cohesion and a sense of an ordered playing rotation.
This is a playoff team. There, I said it.
Sweeping a season series against a quality NBA team is no small deal. The Indiana Pacers needed Friday’s game that much more than the Hornets did. But when the game was decided in the final five minutes, the Hornets got all the key stops and made huge shots.
That’s playoff basketball. That was Friday’s 108-101 win at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Barring a significant injury to a key player – and the past six months make that seem a real danger – the 33-28 Hornets will make their third playoff appearance since the Bobcats’ inception in 2004. Their schedule is favorable and they’ve hit a wave of momentum.
More importantly, this team might be up to doing some damage in the postseason. Coach Steve Clifford said the best traits of this team – low-turnover, low-foul and the best defensive rebound percentage in the league – are things that win in the playoffs.
That doesn’t mean they are without flaws. Point guard Kemba Walker, who had another maestro evening Friday with 33 points and 10 assists, recalled how furious Clifford was with them for a series of defensive breakdowns over the first three quarters.
Took a while, but they got that right as well. In the fourth quarter the Hornets held the Pacers (32-30) to 19 points and 5-of-18 shooting. Indiana forward Paul George, one of the best players in the NBA this season, was held to six points and 1-of-3 shooting from the field in the final quarter.
So is this a playoff team? I asked center Al Jefferson, who replied it has been one, by his view, all the way back to training camp. Fair enough. But that was before losing small forward/defensive stopper Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to two torn labrums and Jefferson missing long stretches with a calf strain and then a torn meniscus in his right knee.
In an odd way, Jefferson’s knee injury might have turned out for the team. The Hornets might never have discovered Cody Zeller’s ability to play NBA center had Jefferson not been injured. And now, with Jefferson playing mostly against backup centers, his post-up game can shine.
So I then turned to Nic Batum, who has plenty of playoff experience from his seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers. I asked if this team has the look, the vibe of a playoff team.
He was emphatic in his reply.
“Yes, yes,” Batum said, “because the starting lineup has played in playoff games before. Kemba, Courtney (Lee), myself, Marvin (Williams)…
Then Batum caught himself, realizing Zeller has no tangible playoff experience. So he made the Hornets’ “starter” at center a hybrid of Zeller and Jefferson. That is fine because in practice that’s true and one of the real strengths of this team.
One of the things Friday illustrated is how many dimensions the Hornets’ offense now has. Sometimes it’s Walker in the pick-and-roll or putting up 3-pointers. Then it was Batum filling up a box score; he had 31 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
And then it was Jefferson, who on a finally healthy knee, can use all those spin moves and drop steps that make him a classic low-post scorer. For about five minutes of the second half Jefferson so befuddled Pacers big man Solomon Hill that Indiana coach Frank Vogel had to call timeout to get Hill out of the game.
In the postgame news conference Clifford started getting multiple questions about playoff scenarios and hypotheticals. He finally reminded Charlotte media, just as he undoubtedly has reminded the players, that such things shouldn’t be of consequence right now.
He said the only thing he wants on his players’ minds after a day off Saturday is what they can correct in practice Sunday: Worry about the missed defensive rotation or the pass that went out of bounds.
Do that effectively and the rest all takes care of itself.