Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford pounded the point throughout the preseason that his team had to be great defensively from Game 1 to succeed this season.
Message received. The Hornets went on the road to hold the Milwaukee Bucks to 66 points in the first three quarters. That was good for a 20-point lead and a 107-96 season-opening victory at Bradley Center.
The Hornets had nine blocks in those first three quarters, with new center Roy Hibbert contributing four. The Bucks shot just 40 percent in that span, compared to the Hornets’ 49 percent from the field.
Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, playing his first regular-season game since February, brought massive energy to this team that seemed to miss him so much last season. Kidd-Gilchrist played only seven games due to two right shoulder injuries, each requiring surgery.
The Hornets also got a boost from reserve big man Cody Zeller, who scored 15 points in limited minutes.
Three who mattered
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: He is so essential to the Hornets’ energy. Wednesday was an excellent demonstration of his value to this team.
Roy Hibbert: It was only one game, but his rim protection could be a huge factor in the Hornets’ season.
Nic Batum: His passing makes the game so much easier for teammates.
▪ Coach Steve Clifford didn’t plan to play Cody Zeller a lot Wednesday after he missed most of the preseason with a bruised knee. But Zeller was the first reserve off the bench and was quite effective, particularly in two-man games with shooting guard Nic Batum.
▪ Frank Kaminsky (foot strain) and Brian Roberts (hamstring) both watched the game in street clothes, so every healthy Hornet was active.
▪ The Hornets scored 32 first-quarter points by constantly driving the ball to the rim. Twenty of those points were scored in the lane. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was particularly aggressive off the dribble.
▪ When Zeller went to the foul line early in the game, some in the crowd chanted “Tyler’s better,” a reference to Zeller’s brother with the Boston Celtics. Didn’t work.
▪ The Hornets’ seven first-half shot blocks would have felt like a week’s work last season.
▪ Greensboro Swarm coach Noel Gillespie is on this two-game road trip with the Hornets.
▪ Hibbert passed Antonio McDyess for 69th on the NBA’s all-time blocks list.
▪ Things can’t help but go better for the Hornets Friday in Miami than the last time; that gruesome Game 7.
A OFFENSE: They did a terrific job early of getting the ball into the lane for layups and dunks. Everything else becomes easy when you succeed at that.
B+ DEFENSE: Clifford expects a lot from this group defensively, and they came together immediately this season.
A COACHING: The preseason was disjointed because of the injuries. To be this good on the road in the opener was most impressive.
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell