Were all those early-season blocked shots a mirage for the Charlotte Hornets or is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist that crucial to any semblance of defense?
For all the promising statistical signs about this team, the Hornets still lose close games and still play down to the worst in the NBA. Both those things happened Sunday night, as they helped the Atlanta Hawks break a 10-game losing streak 124-123.
They have now lost to the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and Hawks, who entered Sunday with the three worst winning percentages in the Eastern Conference. They are 1-7 this season in games decided by four points or less.
The central reason the Hornets were so bad Sunday against a team that last won Nov. 3? Power forward Marvin Williams described that as well as anyone.
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“It might be the worst we’ve played this year, probably,” Williams said of the lane defense, which gave up 58 points in the paint. “That’s disappointing. On all of us, that’s disappointing. We’re better than that individually, and we’re definitely better than that collectively.”
The winning basket came with 4.6 seconds left when Kent Bazemore broke down Dwayne Bacon for a driving layup. It was essentially a straight-line drive, which is precisely what the Hornets were so awful at guarding most of this game. As Williams said afterward, the fault for that is no more on Bacon than on how poorly help came from teammates, and that was symbolic of this entire game.
The Hornets have consistently been better on offense than defense this season, but Sunday should prompt some real soul-searching for this team about how seriously and personally they are taking defensive responsibility.
True, one of their best defenders, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, has missed the past five games with an ankle sprain, and his presence is missed. Kidd-Gilchrist can guard a wide spectrum of scorers and his off-the-ball defense is important. That 6-foot-7 Kidd-Gilchrist entered the game still leading the Hornets in blocked shots (17) is both a testament to his grit and illustration that the Hornets’ rim-protection is seriously lacking.
The Hornets somehow were among the NBA’s leaders in blocked shots the first couple of weeks of the season. It was one of those collective efforts that gave hope they could entourage their way to be a decent defense. They have slipped to 10th among 30 teams in blocks and their defensive ranking is now 15th, allowing 108.5 points per 100 opponent possessions.
“The straight-line drive was the theme of the night,” coach James Borrego said. “Fifty-eight points in the paint to 28 (by the Hornets), that sums it.”
If the 4-16 Hawks, a team in the bottom third of the league in scoring and every significant shooting category, can light the Hornets up for 53 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3-point range, then what will the Milwaukee Bucks, built around superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, do to them in the second game of a back-to-back Monday in Charlotte?
There’s a decent chance Kidd-Gilchrist will play Monday. He was upgraded to questionable Saturday, but was not cleared Sunday, so he’s close. Kidd-Gilchrist is an important piece defensively, but he’s not a savior.
Some of this has to be about tough self-examination, because this won’t get fixed with gimmicky schemes.
“The second half was just a drive-fest for them,” Borrego said, so I asked if he viewed this as an anomaly or if he saw defensive persistence receding over time.
“Some games we have a presence on the ball, we have control of the ball (handler). If they’re constantly at the rim, that’s a problem,” Borrego answered.
“They just put their heads down and flat-out drove right by us. That is just one-on-one pride, one-on-one guard your man. There wasn’t a lot of tricky plays going on out there. Just, ‘can you guard your man?’ and we just didn’t get it done tonight.”
Not exclusively defense
The defense was the worst of Sunday’s performance, but it certainly wasn’t the only flaw. Once again, the offense in the final minute was Kemba-or-nothing. Walker hit a 20-foot step-back with 48 seconds left to give the Hornets their final lead of this game.
Charlotte’s two possessions that followed ended in a shot-clock violation with 15 seconds left and Walker’s desperation layup attempt being blocked by Hawks forward John Collins in the last second.
“I’ll own that, I’ll put that on myself,” Borrego said of the shot-clock violation, “but we’ve got to get a better look, though.”
He’s right, but that’s fine-tuning. By comparison, this defense looked in need of some overhaul.