The Charlotte Hornets have figured out a way to win of late and it’s a familiar theme from last season:
Embrace defense or expect failure.
Coach Steve Clifford accepts there won’t be many nights when he can expect his roster to generate more than 95 points. But the way they have guarded since the first of the year, 95 is plenty.
Over the past 15 games, in which the Hornets went 11-4, the defensive numbers are rather striking: Opponents have averaged 89.4 points on 39.6 percent shooting from the field.
Last season’s team was elite defensively. Not so much the first two months of this season, when opponents averaged 100.4 points on 46 percent shooting from the field.
Something dramatic changed right around the new year.
“I’d say from the beginning of the year, like night-and-day,” Clifford said of the improved defense. “Less mistakes and more activity. We’re tied together – more organized.
“The last five weeks we turned a corner – it’s about focus and purpose.”
The reward in this is the 21-27 Hornets are back in playoff contention in the Eastern Conference. That despite them missing point guard Kemba Walker, who will be out at least another five weeks after knee surgery.
Part of the recent improvement has been about players taking more ownership, part about communication and trust. Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, generally considered this team’s best defensive player, explained Monday after the Hornets’ victory over the Washington Wizards.
“We’re tight, No. 1, and No. 2 – we’re all talking,” Kidd-Gilchrist said of better defensive communication. “We all like each other and we want to fight for one another. I’m the leader of that. I’m starting to understand how important I am to this team at the defensive end. Being all tied together is so important.”
Defense is partially about trust – if you leave your man to rotate to someone else’s man, you do that with conviction only if you’re confident everyone else will rotate, too.
“I know if I get beaten, Al (Jefferson) is right there or (Gerald Henderson) is right there,” Kidd-Glichrist said. “It’s a trust thing. I agree.”
Henderson said part of this was about getting back to a defense-first mindset. For all the change during the offseason with the signings of free agents Lance Stephenson, Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts, this team isn’t appreciably stronger offensively. So it can’t afford to regress defensively.
“That’s got to be our identity,” Henderson said. “We’re an improving offensive team, but to stay in games, particularly on the road, we have to play some defense.”
Jefferson, one of the NBA’s better low-post scorers, isn’t known for his defense. But he’s putting in the effort. It was telling Monday that the Wizards’ starting big men, Marcin Gortat and Nene, combined for just 12 points.
“We’re more dedicated. We got back to where we were last year. (We) realized that’s our only chance to be a great team,” Jefferson said. “We’ve got to lock in and play together at both ends.”