Staring at a box score while icing his knees Wednesday night, Charlotte Hornets forward Marvin Williams uttered a loud curse word.
There was much to curse about the Hornets’ season-opening 104-94 road loss to the Miami Heat. The Heat is good and has beaten the Hornets 19 of their past 21 meetings. But so much of the damage was self-inflicted by a Hornets team that trailed by as many as 20 points.
Atop that list: lazy transition defense, as the Heat scored 15 fast-break points to the Hornets’ eight.
“That was something we did a great job of last year. The one thing about transition defense is there are no Xs and Os to it. You’ve just got to run back. It’s all effort,” Williams said. “Right now it’s disappointing that coach has to spend so much time talking about it.”
Above all else, coach Steve Clifford is a stickler about transition defense. When he took this job in the spring of 2013, Clifford called getting back on defense his “non-negotiable.” He told players not to chase after offensive rebounds if they had any chance of compromising transition defense.
“It’s everybody. We all have to do a better job of getting back,” Williams said. “Or we’re going to end up getting down 20 like we did tonight each and every night.”
Clifford saw this coming late in the preseason when his team was lackadaisical about transition defense against the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers. He raised the issue with media before Wednesday’s tip-off, then sounded more adamant about the issue post-game.
“For whatever reason, right now they don’t believe me, but they’re going to keep seeing it. Those things beat you,” Clifford said of teams running for layups.
“(Former Hornets coach) Dick Harter used to say there is nothing that shows the true character of a basketball player more than transition defensive effort,” he said. “If you want to win, then you run back. It takes no talent.
“You look every year at what the best teams do, and they all run back.”
Clifford’s other post-game concern was poor ball movement. The Hornets totaled just 16 assists Wednesday after looking like such a deft and unselfish passing team in a 7-1 preseason.
“The thing we did in the preseason that tonight we refused to do was pass the ball to each other,” said Clifford, whose team will play at Atlanta Friday night. “The ball is sticking. In the second quarter and the third quarter the ball has got to move.”
Clifford addressed several other issues:
He said the Heat successfully going small in the second half, with Chris Bosh at center rather than power forward, was why Hornets center Al Jefferson played only eight minutes in the second half after scoring 17 points in the first half. Clifford needed the more mobile Williams and Cody Zeller on the floor to guard Bosh out to the 3-point line.
“Bosh was the X-factor the whole game,” Clifford said. “In the first half, when they played small, we really struggled. And then in the third quarter when he got going that was the difference in the game.”
Asked about starting P.J. Hairstonat small forward, Clifford said he was pleased for the most part with Hairston’s defense, mostly on Miami’s Dwyane Wade.
“I thought he did well. He made one mistake in the first half on Gerald Green where he gave him some space. But I felt like he played with discipline. We need someone who can guard primary scorers and he did a good job on Wade.”
Clifford is trying not to make Nicolas Batum constantly guard the opposing team’s best scorer since Batum has so much responsibility offensively.
“A lot of good players don’t guard the other team’s best player until the fourth quarter,” Clifford said. “Wade has done that most of his career and we did that with Tracy (McGrady) in Houston. Hopefully as P.J. goes on, he can (guard the other team’s top scorer) in the fourth quarter, too.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell
Hornets at Hawks
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Philips Arena, Atlanta
TV; radio: FSSE; WFNZ-AM (610, Charlotte)