Too many dirty looks at the referees. Too many easy looks for the opponent.
That sums up the Charlotte Hornets’ 91-88 home loss to the Brooklyn Nets, a game with huge stakes and potential consequences. By beating the Hornets Wednesday the 30-40 Nets clinched a tiebreaker, based on their winning the season series two games to one.
The Hornets had chances in this one all the way down to the last possession, when Brooklyn center Brook Lopez deflected an in-bounds pass by Gerald Henderson (23 points), avoiding a potential tying 3-pointer.
That deflection didn’t really decide this one. Rather it was the “discombobulated” (coach Steve Clifford’s word) way the 30-40 Hornets approached the third quarter. The Nets outscored the Hornets 26-18 that quarter. Brooklyn shot 12-of-22 from the field while the Hornets shot 7-of-21.
Clifford didn’t like the players’ distracted body language that quarter. Center Al Jefferson described.
“We started worrying about things we have no control over: The calls we weren’t getting and the calls they were getting against us” said Jefferson (23 points and 10 rebounds). “For a team playing for our (playoff) lives, we can’t lose focus like that.”
The Hornets are making it very hard on themselves. They are now in eleventh place and would have to pass the Nets, Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics over the remaining 12 games to qualify for a second consecutive playoff appearance.
The optimist would say the 30-40 Hornets are only one game behind the 31-39 Celtics. But to use a racing analogy, it’s not the distance between those two teams, it’s all the traffic the Hornets would have to pass in-between.
The Hornets are about to hit a rough patch in the schedule. They play at the Washington Wizards Friday and home Saturdayagainst the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks.
After that they’ll have two games against the Toronto Raptors plus a road game against the Hawks and a home game against the Houston Rockets – rough stuff for a team that has now lost seven of its last nine games.
While Jefferson played well offensively, he struggled to guard Lopez, who finished with 34 points and 10 rebounds.
“Brook had one of the great games he’s ever had,” Jefferson said. “He made such difficult shots.”
Clifford cut Jefferson some slack post-game, reminding media Jefferson has been hurt almost continuously this season. He was held out of most of the second half of the road loss in ChicagoMonday with a sore right knee.
“He’s very competitive. You’re never going to question his courage,” Clifford said of Jefferson. “But he’s never healthy. He’s not close to where he wants to be. He doesn’t have his quickness or agility.”
Jefferson initially argued with Clifford about sitting down in Chicago, then realized the effect of his limping.
“The Chicago game I felt like I could go, but I was hurting my team,” Jefferson said.
All that, combined with the sense of distraction Clifford noticed from his players, made for an ugly night against an Eastern Conference peer.
“We’ve got to know who we are. This can’t be about the officials or whatever,” Clifford said. “We got discombobulated for four minutes in the third quarter when we (became preoccupied) with the referees’ calls or whatever.”
And that cost them big.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell