Center Al Jefferson offered a simple solution Monday for what has been a vexing problem for the Charlotte Hornets this early season:
“Basically do to teams what they do to me night-in and night-out,” Jefferson said, referring to the double-teams pointed his way constantly. “It’s something we haven’t done since Coach and I arrived, but it’s something we’re working on and in these couple of days (of practice) get down pat.”
Low-post defense – a great strength for the then-Charlotte Bobcats last season – has been a relative weakness in the Hornets’ 4-14 start. That came to a head Saturday in a 30-point blowout loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks scored 40 points in the lane with power forward Paul Millsap and center Al Horford combining to shoot 12 of 16 from the field.
Coach Steve Clifford would prefer not to have to double-team the post, since that creates defensive gaps along the perimeter. But addressing the constant layups and dunks opponents are creating was a top priority in these back-to-back days of practice before Wednesday’s home game against the Chicago Bulls.
“We’re obviously not the biggest team. But there are different things we can do to (guard) the post and all of it is going to be effort stuff,” shooting guard Gerald Henderson said.
“Some teams can just take things away from others with their size. That’s not going to be us, so it’s got to be effort. Whether it’s fronting (the post) or digging (i.e. guards going after the ball in a post-scorer’s hands), it’s all going to be (about) trying.
Last season the Bobcats compensated for limited offense with elite defense. They were fourth in the NBA in fewest points allowed and sixth in opponent field-goal percentage. They led the NBA in defensive-rebound percentage.
The Hornets are significantly off that pace defensively this season: They are 22nd among 30 teams in points-allowed and 25th in opponent field-goal percentage. They are still a solid third in defensive-rebound percentage.
They haven’t compensated for that defensive lapse with significantly better offense: They’re still bottom-third in the NBA in points, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and 3-point percentage.
The Bobcats weren’t a big team last season and they grew smaller this season when they replaced power forward Josh McRoberts with Marvin Williams, who spent most of his previous NBA career at small forward. Clifford has occasionally called his team “tiny.”
“We’re an undersized team, particularly at the (power forward) position. We ask Marv to guard a lot of great guys in the low block,” Jefferson said. “He had a tough week, having to cover (the Clippers’) Blake Griffin and (the Trail Blazers’) LaMarcus (Aldridge). Like coach said, we need to become a better team defense, particularly in the post.”
So Clifford is taking the leap toward increased doubles.
“We’re going to have to commit two to (guarding) the ball more,” Clifford said. “That’s fine. It will take a while to (acclimate). It’s what is necessary right now so that’s what we worked on today.”
The congested early schedule – the Hornets played 18 games in the first 32 days of the regular season – limited practice in November, both in terms of how often they practiced and how strenuously they practiced. Only twice prior to Monday had the Hornets had back-to-back days off between games.
“If we had the same team from last year, maybe it wouldn’t hurt quite so bad but when you have all those new guys coming in, trying to fit in, it hurts to have no practice time,” said Jefferson, who reminded Charlotte media Monday the Bobcats started out 17-25 before finishing 43-39.
“It’s real tough going through this, but we were eight, nine games under .500 last season, too,” Jefferson said. “That’s when we realized what it takes to win and that was stop making mistakes at the defensive end. Believe it or not, we’re so close. Saturday night is a bad example but we were in the games the previous two against Portland and Golden State – right now maybe the two best teams in the league.
“We’re right there – a few mistakes away from turning things around. It’s still early, we’re still in the (less challenging) East and we’re still positive. I still believe this team can do something special.”