It turns out the Charlotte Hornets’ defense was just lost, not vaporized.
On Wednesday, the Hornets renounced for a night everything that got the Bobcats to the playoffs last season. On Friday, after a practice of nearly three hours Thursday, this team rediscovered defense as salvation against the Washington Wizards.
The Hornets held Washington to 37 percent shooting and under 90 points for a 99-86 exhibition victory at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
Hornets coach Steve Clifford praised forwards Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for setting the tone in the first quarter, when the Wizards shot just 5-of-20 from the field.
“We’ve got to compete and talk. Some of the older guys who’ve been around see things (coming), so it’s our responsibility to kind of anchor this thing,” said Williams, a free agent who left the Utah Jazz for the Hornets
“We have a lot of guys who can score with the basketball. I’m fitting in at the offensive end, but I feel like I really need to set a tone on the defensive end.”
Someone sure had to. The Hornets allowed the Philadelphia 76ers to score 52 points in the lane and 25 fast-break points. That is nothing like the defensive priorities Clifford established in his first season coaching this franchise.
“Tonight we played defense. Against Philly we didn’t play defense, not with real energy,” Williams said.
The Hornets were shorthanded Friday with shooting guard Lance Stephenson missing the game with a deep cut along one of his small toes. The Hornets were already missing Gerald Henderson, projected to be out at least another week with a strained right hamstring.
So Clifford went with Gary Neal as a starter, and he was terrific. Neal scored eight of the Hornets’ first 14 points. He finished with 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field and 3-of-5 from 3-point range.
Clifford said Neal had the team’s best training camp in Asheville, after dropping 23 pounds since arriving in Charlotte in a trade from the Milwaukee Bucks. Along with the scoring, Neal finished the game with three assists, three rebounds, a block and a steal.
Clifford has been surprised and delighted with how Neal is so much more than just a shooter.
“With all the work he did in the summer, Gary is just ahead of most of our guys – that and his basketball IQ and skill level,” Clifford said.
When the Hornets were contemplating the trade with the Bucks, Clifford called Sixers coach Brett Brown, a close friend who had coached Neal as a San Antonio Spurs assistant.
“Brett said people view him as a spot-up shooter, and he’s a lot more than that. And he is.”
Neal entered the season in a crowd of shooting guards, and he’s singled himself out so far.
“My shooting ability helps my playmaking. Guys have to play closer to me, which allows me get one step in the paint and draw help defense,” Neal said. “When I get my chest going forward, the defense pays attention.”
HORNETS 99, WIZARDS 86
Percentages: FG .373, FT .654. Three-Point Goals: 7-21, .333 (Silas 4-7, Porter Jr. 2-3, Wall 1-3, Butler 0-1, Pierce 0-1, Temple 0-1, Beal 0-2, Rice Jr. 0-3). Team Rebounds: 13. Team Turnovers: 11 (6 PTS). Blocked Shots: 7 (Gortat 3, Seraphin 3, James). Turnovers: 10 (Seraphin 3, Temple 2, Wall 2, Blair, Gortat, Porter Jr.). Steals: 4 (James, Porter Jr., Rice Jr., Wall).
Percentages: FG .427, FT .696. Three-Point Goals: 13-28, .464 (Pargo 4-7, Hairston 3-4, Neal 3-5, Walker 2-6, Williams 1-3, Roberts 0-3). Team Rebounds: 12. Team Turnovers: 11 (8 PTS). Blocked Shots: 4 (Biyombo, Kidd-Gilchrist, Neal, Zeller). Turnovers: 10 (Walker 3, Kidd-Gilchrist 2, Jefferson, Pargo, Roberts, Williams, Zeller). Steals: 4 (Williams 3, Neal).