Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford is an early riser, often arriving at his office at Time Warner Cable Arena around sunup.
Unfortunately, his players didn’t take the same early-bird approach to their jobs Sunday.
Clifford is always wary of day games, because you never know how throwing athletes’ rhythms off might affect outcomes. This road matchup with the Atlanta Hawks tipped off at 3:30 p.m., or right about the time players would normally be getting out the door for a typical 7 p.m. start.
“(Day games) come down to readiness,” Clifford said after the 87-76 loss at Philips Arena. “The game was won in the first quarter. They had more readiness than we did to start.”
This start was so gruesome it felt like a flashback to the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats circa 2011-12. The Hornets somehow missed 18 of their first 19 shots and fell behind by as many as 24 points.
I was thinking such a horrendous start might have not happened for a very long time. I was wrong. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Toronto Raptors started a game 1-of-19 a year ago, almost to the day. Their opponent that day was the Golden State Warriors, an elite defensive team.
The Hawks are excellent defensively, too, but that doesn’t explain away the Hornets managing just nine points in the first quarter.
Clifford’s word – “readiness” – was both accurate and damning. Teams like the Warriors and the Spurs don’t play the first quarter in their sleep just because a game starts before the sun is setting.
Gifting away the first quarter – particularly playing on the road – means you have to play near-perfect to come back and win. To the Hornets’ credit, they trimmed the deficit all the way down to two in the second half. But what that cost them in exertion meant they had no finishing kick in the last three minutes.
“When we got back in the game, we couldn’t get over the hump,” said power forward Marvin Williams (16 points), one of the few Hornets who played well Sunday. “We have to do a better job next game of getting off to a better start.”
No, they have to do a better job of that every game. The Hornets did some things Sunday that you want them to repeat: They dominated in trips to the foul line (23 free-throw attempts to the Hawks’ five) and they cut down on the turnovers that have plagued them of late, managing just seven giveaways to Atlanta’s 17.
“We made plays,” said Williams, who has made nine of 18 3-point attempts in his last two games. “And obviously that’s a very good team.
“We felt like we got back in the game and put ourselves in position to win. Then they ran off five or seven points and put it out of reach.”
The Hornets’ success this season hinges on Kemba Walker and Nic Batum as much as anyone. Those two hit bottom Sunday, combining to shoot 4-of-21 for 11 points. This was the second rough game for Batum, who committed five turnovers Friday in Indianapolis.
The Hornets started the post-All Star break with five consecutive road games. Had someone predicted in mid-February they’d go 3-2 in those games, fans would be pleased.
But Clifford wants his team to be greedy and remorseful.
“If we leave here being happy because we had a 3-2 road trip, we’ll never be that good of a team,” Clifford said. “If we leave here disappointed because we laid an egg with a chance to go 4-1, then we have a chance to move forward.”
March is a month full of home games and opportunity. This loss, if nothing else, should serve as an attention-getter.