Charlotte Hornets

Where do Hornets stand at break? Looking up, thanks to something they’ve lacked

Charlotte Hornets guard Nicolas Batum, left, knocks the ball away from Orlando Magic forward Jonathon Simmons. The Hornets registered a season-high 14 steals in Wednesday’s 104-102 win at Orlando.
Charlotte Hornets guard Nicolas Batum, left, knocks the ball away from Orlando Magic forward Jonathon Simmons. The Hornets registered a season-high 14 steals in Wednesday’s 104-102 win at Orlando. AP

It would be disingenuous to say the Charlotte Hornets played their best basketball on Wednesday night, their last game before the NBA’s All-Star break.

After all, there have been games where they shot better and games where they defended better. There have been more consistent games, more dynamic individual performances.

And yet, the Hornets still emerged victorious against the Magic, 104-102, thanks to something they’ve largely been lacking this season – something that has the team headed in the right direction before All-Star weekend.

Steals.

That may seem blown out of proportion, but for a Hornets team that averages just 6.8 steals per game (26th out of 30 teams), registering a season-high 14 steals is no small feat. Turning those into 24 points is of course just as important, but that defensive aggression is something the team has been missing for large swaths of this season.

“That’s all of us just being active (on defense),” Kemba Walker said. “Contesting passes, getting in the passing lanes, just being smart on defense.”

The reason for the one-time uptick? To paraphrase coach Steve Clifford, just trying something different.

“We had such a sluggish start there that we just sold out a little bit,” Clifford said. “We were more aggressive with our pick-and-roll coverages just to try to get our energy up.”

It’s true. The Hornets may have beaten the Magic nine straight times coming into Wednesday’s game, but Charlotte certainly didn’t seem destined for No. 10 after the first quarter. It took Walker almost 10 minutes to make his first shot (which was just one of seven the team made in the first period) and so the Hornets trailed by six early on.

And then, steals. They got handsy, poking at the ball whenever it was exposed and trying to knock it loose. Jeremy Lamb and Michael Carter-Williams each recorded two steals in the second half alone, as a reserve unit that struggled at times this year actually built a small lead instead of letting one slip away.

Now, that isn’t to say the Hornets’ defense was perfect. When you get aggressive, sometimes you miss, too.

“You’re going to give some up too when you do that,” Clifford said. “When you’re that aggressive and up, there’s things behind you that you’re not going to be able to run down.”

But even so, those steals were the spark that led to scoring. As that aggressive play continued into the second half, the team built a 12-point cushion midway through the third, stealing it three straight Magic possessions right after the break.

And while the Magic were able to chip away at that lead and eventually tie the game in the fourth quarter, those steals again proved vital at the end, leading directly to Walker’s late 3 that put the Hornets up for good.

That many turnovers is not normal for the Hornets, and Clifford acknowledged that playing that risky defensively isn’t something the team can afford every game. For one night though, for a much-needed boost before the All-Star break?

Well in this case it worked – and although the Hornets’ odds of making the playoffs still aren’t terrific (they’re 5.5 games back of the No. 8 seed in the East), they’re at least one step closer going into the All-Star break.

All thanks to something they’ve been lacking most of this year.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks

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