How many games will the Charlotte Hornets win this season while giving up 60 points in the paint?
“None,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford responded, then realized he was factually incorrect.
“OK, one,” Clifford corrected, following Sunday’s 108-101 road victory over the Detroit Pistons.
Clifford has a mantra: “Defense, rebounding, low-turnover.” It is the formula his team must follow to win. So this game became the great outlier. They gave up basket after basket in the lane and were outrebounded 42-39. (They committed one fewer turnover – 10 to Detroit’s 11.)
So then how did they pull this one off? Center Al Jefferson regained his exceptional scoring touch from late last season and small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was switched to guarding Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson in the second half.
Jefferson finished the game with 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting from the field. Kidd-Gilchrist held Jackson to four points on 2-of-9 shooting in the second half after Jackson had run up 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting before halftime.
Kidd-Gilchrist has long been the Hornets’ best defender, but what’s expanding now is the spectrum of players Clifford will assign him to guard. Sunday he guarded Jackson most of the second half, but he also took a stint at power forward to match up late-game when the Pistons went small.
Clifford and his staff had discussed using Kidd-Gilchrist on Jackson prior to the game. But circumstance kept that from happening in the first half.
“The problem was when (Jackson) got going in the first quarter, Mike already had two quick fouls,” Clifford reminded.
Between Jackson’s drives and power forward Greg Monroe’s post-ups, the Pistons (23-39) scored 32 points in the lane in the first half. They generated 62 first-half points off 51 percent shooting, building a nine-point halftime lead.
Contrast that to the second half: The Pistons scored 39 points and shot 36 percent from the field.
What Kidd-Gilchrist contributed in the second half is illustrative of the compromise the Hornets make to get point guard Mo Williams’ scoring. Williams was again terrific offensively (21 points, nine assists and two clutch free throws in the final minute), but he’s limited defensively.
Hence the sort of cross-matching Kidd-Gilchrist did Sunday, allowing Williams to defend someone other than the red-hot point guard.
“When Mo first got traded here I told him, ‘Man, you are going to love MKG,’” Jefferson said post-game. “That’s what makes him so special – that he can guard so many different guys and he rebounds very well.
“He’s the captain of our defense. You can always tell when he’s not playing that it makes a big difference.”
Just like it makes a big difference when Jefferson is working the post and hitting corner jump shots. He knew the Hornets (28-33) were fortunate to take this game and extend the winning streak to five games.
“Sometimes things happen like that. We lost the rebounding game, too,” Jefferson said. “Then it was getting stops, bringing some energy to the game. What they’re good at we finally took away. In the first half we gave them everything they wanted. We had to toughen up on defense and then the offense got going.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell