Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford has discovered a trend within a trend with his team.
First, Clifford is fully aware that the Hornets have given away second-half leads in several of their losses, the latest a dispiriting 125-120 overtime defeat against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday at Spectrum Center.
Just how those losses have come is what is eating at Clifford.
“We’ve scored more than enough points in the fourth quarter to win,” said Clifford, whose team blew a 15-point second-half lead against Minnesota. “So (Saturday) was especially disappointing because our two points of emphasis were to get our defense set and the physicality game. When the intensity goes up this high (in the fourth quarter), that’s when you’ve got to be at your best. That’s when it’s most physical.
The reality is we are either going to become a more physical group or we’re not. But we’re not winning (playing) like this, not every night.
The Hornets were having their way with the Timberwolves (6-14), who at first seemed lethargic after playing the night before in New York. Charlotte (11-9) held Minnesota to 39.1 percent shooting in the first half and led by as many as 13 points. Although the Timberwolves narrowed the score to 52-49 at halftime, the Hornets stretched it back to 15 midway through the third quarter.
But then came the fourth. The Timberwolves scored the first 10 points of the period, then — after the Hornets seemed to regain control (leading by seven with 1 minute 26 seconds left) — tied it at 106-106 on an Andrew Wiggins 3-pointer with 8.9 seconds remaining. Minnesota took early and permanent control of overtime — scoring the first seven points.
The Hornets let a 15-point second half lead evaporate against the Timberwolves.
Nowhere was the difference in the Hornets’ physicality from earlier in the game to the final quarter more apparent than during one third-quarter possession. Forward Cody Zeller scrapped to keep the ball alive on the offensive glass, twice out-working Timberwolves players. With the ball bouncing free, Zeller hit the floor to tip it to Kemba Walker, who hit a jumper.
But that kind of effort — and physicality — wasn’t sustainable for the Hornets.
51-50 Minnesota’s rebounding advantage over the Hornets.
“It’s been the same thing all year,” said Zeller. “We just play in spurts too much. We had plenty of chances to close them out. Coach has been preaching it to us and (Saturday) it got us.”
Despite the loss, the Hornets remain in first place in the NBA’s Southeast Division. They play at Dallas on Monday with their coach in a highly frustrated state. Physicality is hard to quantify. The Timberwolves only out-rebounded the Hornets 51-50, but Minnesota outscored Charlotte 62-44 in the paint and had more second-chance points (16-12).
“More than anything, we’ve got to hit people,” said Clifford. “We’ve got to be willing to be more physical. The reality is we are either going to become a more physical group or we’re not. But we’re not winning (playing) like this, not every night.”