It’s an expression Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford uses often:
“You play the game you prepare to play,” he repeated after the Hornets looked remarkably ill-prepared in a 101-93 home loss to a Denver Nuggets team headed to the draft lottery.
The Nuggets are not without talent. Center Nikola Jokic made it hard for any Hornet to score in the lane before fouling out. Reserve D.J. Augustin, who just relishes playing against the franchise that drafted him as a Bobcat, tallied 24 points.
But this is a team the Hornets should beat, particularly at Time Warner Cable Arena, where they are 26-11. Losing Saturday negated all the momentum generated from Thursday’s emotional road victory over the Miami Heat.
Clifford said his team lacked “readiness,” which doesn’t often happen. He likes the level of effort and preparation this group generally provides. But the Nuggets (29-41) looked far hungrier, seemingly chasing down all the 50-50 balls in the first half.
Denver led this one by as many as 22 points. The final score didn’t reflect that dominance only because Nic Batum had another spectacular, multi-skill game, particularly during the fourth quarter. He scored 13 of his 24 points in the final quarter. He totaled nine assists and eight rebounds (though he also had four turnovers).
The Hornets cut the deficit all the way to six in the fourth quarter, but a play that put this game away – a long offensive rebound by Nuggets guard Gary Harris with 26 seconds left – defined the oomph Denver possessed and the Hornets lacked.
Clifford acknowledged this could have been a hangover from the Miami victory. But he didn’t like what he saw and made that clear during the postgame news conference.
He’s right that no more than perhaps five NBA teams are so talented they can coast like Saturday and win consistently. Certainly the Hornets are not such a team.
They climbed to 10 games above .500 entering this game because of good habits. Nuggets coach Mike Malone said before the game what distinguishes Clifford’s teams is their attention to detail and effort.
That’s true, but not Saturday. They were coming off a day off Friday and Clifford brought them in mid-afternoon for a 6 p.m. tip-off, rather than hold a morning shootaround.
I don’t know if changing that routine would have made any difference, but Clifford foreshadowed Monday’s home meeting with the San Antonio Spurs by saying what happens Sunday and Monday morning will determine whether the Hornets have a chance in that game.
The Hornets have just four more home games this season. They have worked hard to place themselves in the discussion for a good playoff seeding, perhaps even home-court advantage in the first round.
None of that matters if Saturday’s effort becomes anything like a pattern.