Charlotte Hornets

Kemba Walker - smallest Hornet - has biggest of rebounding games Friday

Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker (15) is stripped of the ball as he goes up for a layup against Philadelphia’s Isaiah Canaan in Friday’s game. Walker still finished with a game-high 27 points and a game-high 11 rebounds, nine of them defensive.
Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker (15) is stripped of the ball as he goes up for a layup against Philadelphia’s Isaiah Canaan in Friday’s game. Walker still finished with a game-high 27 points and a game-high 11 rebounds, nine of them defensive. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Sometimes when I watch the Hornets play the prettiest basketball Charlotte has seen in a long time, I think back to a meeting in the summer of 2013.

Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson were sick of losing. You don’t star at programs like Connecticut and Duke and not hate losing. So the two of them met with new coach Steve Clifford to ask what it would take to get past these dark days.

In so many words, Clifford said “conform.” If they would abide by some guiding principles and use their influence in the locker room to get others to buy in, the then-Bobcats would give themselves a chance.

How tough is it for a 6-foot guy to grab 11 boards in an NBA game?

These weren’t real complicated things: Relentlessly get back on defense. Don’t commit high turnovers. Don’t commit high fouls. Control the defensive boards.

That last one – defensive rebounding – was big for the little guy Friday night. Along with scoring a game-high 27 points to beat the Philadelphia 76ers 100-91, Walker grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds, nine of them defensive.

How tough is it for a 6-foot guy to grab 11 boards in an NBA game?

“He’s just so competitive,” said Hornets coach Steve Clifford of Walker. “He comes back (toward the rebound) and he has such a knack with the ball.

“We had a year in New York where two of our top defensive rebounders were (point guards) Charley Ward and Mark Jackson. Sometimes our big guys can’t both block out and rebound so the smaller guys get them.”

What Walker did Friday, 75 games into a grueling schedule, was pure heart and passion. He’s sick of missing the playoffs now the way he was sick three years ago of constant losses. So after the Sixers cut what had been a double-digit deficit to four, Walker grabbed in a long offensive rebound, redirected the offense, got the ball back, and drilled a 3-pointer.

Massive momentum-changer.

As much as anything, the Hornets are 44-31, on the verge of clinching the playoffs, because of how Walker and small forward Nic Batum (19 points and seven assists) will them home.

They are about to reach the first and most important goal of the season: qualify for the playoffs. Then they’d be playing for seeding and possible home-court advantage in the first round (which no longer seems such a long shot)

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Once the playoff spot is secured, Clifford will be most concerned with maintaining momentum and focus. If they utter a big sigh and start taking nights off, it negates what is so admirable about this team: Its pluck and focus.

“To me the biggest goal is to make the playoffs – that’s what we talked about the first day (of training camp),” Clifford recalled. “It’s to make the playoffs and be playing in a way you can be a factor. That goes together.

“If we have a chance to get a higher seed, that’s great. But the priority will be how we’re playing. That’s more important than anything.”

And what exactly does that mean?

“Guys have to be in rhythm,” Clifford said. “You can see we still have a ways to go with that.”

True, but they’ve also come a long way, a very long way, in fact. A lot of that is about the 6-foot guy with the resolve to hunt down 11 rebounds.

 
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