There were plenty of numbers working in the Charlotte Hornets’ favor Wednesday.
The 123 points they scored. Their 49 trips to the foul line. The 11 turnovers.
But the best number in an 11-point victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder was this: They held an opponent to 31-percent shooting from the field and 24 points in the fourth quarter.
The Hornets’ fourth-quarter defense has been dreadful of late. Think back to the last game, when they were utterly wasted by Jimmy Butler and the Chicago Bulls down the stretch. The Bulls have their own problems this season and to finish that game as the Hornets did was frustrating.
At various times lately, Hornets coach Steve Clifford has called his team’s defense a “joke” and a “pick-and-choose” proposition. So he was pleased and relieved the Hornets would toughen up at the Spectrum Center against an opponent as formidable as the 21-15 Thunder.
Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook is having a season that could lead to a most valuable player trophy. He put up big numbers Wednesday, finishing with 33 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists. Yet you could hardly call what he did in this game efficient: He shot 10-of-31 from the field.
That was particularly true in the decisive fourth quarter, when Westbrook hit three of his 10 attempts. He was scrambling to get his team back into this game, and the Hornets got stop after stop.
That, to a great degree, was about who guarded him. Hornets small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was on the court whenever Westbrook was, fighting through screen after screen to defend him.
It was a predictable move – Clifford used Kidd-Gilchrist on Westbrook two seasons ago – and the right call. Kidd-Gilchrist had the length, the toughness and the precision to make Westbrook’s scoring tough, without constantly sending him to the foul line.
Remember, the Hornets took 49 foul shots to the Thunder’s 23.
The Hornets’ points allowed per 100 possessions is up dramatically in the past few weeks. Clifford said it’s no mystery why.
“We get beaten one-on-one,” Clifford said of the drives that have carved up his team.
That was certainly true in the Bulls’ game, when Butler seemed to go by Nic Batum whenever he wanted.
The next two weeks could be a rough patch for this team. The Hornets are a decent 20-16, but now face a five-game road trip that includes games against the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics.
If they play like they did in Chicago, that trip has disastrous potential. If they play like they did Wednesday, they should go at least 2-3 and perhaps steal one against one of those three playoff-bound teams.
Clifford says that for his team to reach its potential this season, the Hornets must be top-5 defensively and top-10 offensively.
In Chicago, they didn’t look top-25 defensively.
Nice to see them get back to form, for one game anyway.