A little creative tension at halftime might have saved the Charlotte Hornets from being humiliated by the San Antonio Spurs.
Center Al Jefferson told shooting guard Gerald Henderson he needed the ball more in the post. He said so rather firmly.
“In that first half I missed him a few times because they front so much and I haven’t played with him in a while,” Henderson described following a 95-86 loss.
“He got on my (butt) and said, ‘Look in!’ It’s quick opportunities. I just caught it and looked. He either made the shot or the right pass.”
Jefferson finished with 17 points and a season-high 16 rebounds. Henderson scored a game-high 18 points. And, most importantly, the Hornets made up all but two points of an 18-point deficit before ultimately succumbing to the reigning NBA champions.
The Hornets (19-27) are searching for how best to function in the absence of point guard Kemba Walker, who had knee surgery Wednesday in New York. Walker will miss at least the next six weeks while recovering.
The Hornets also played without power forward Marvin Williams (concussion) and center Bismack Biyombo (knee bruise). Coach Steve Clifford said post-game that Williams’ headaches have abated, so it’s possible he’ll be cleared under the NBA’s concussion protocol to play Saturday against the Denver Nuggets.
The third quarter looked like a template for how the Hornets should play under these challenging conditions. They outscored the Spurs 26-14 with tighter defense and more précise offensive execution.
The Spurs shot just 4-of-21 that quarter, not scoring a single fast-break point and being outscored in the lane 12-2.
“We didn’t play so well in the first half. We gave up a lot of penetration, particularly middle-penetration where they kill teams,” said Henderson. “We made that adjustment on defense and played with some pace on offense, which is the way we’ll have to play.”
After trailing 44-26 midway through the second quarter, the Hornets twice trailed by two with the ball in the second half, but could never tie the game.
Henderson, a tri-captain along with Jefferson and Walker, said Wednesday the Hornets demonstrated resiliency.
“We do have a tough team. We lock in on defense and play really hard,” Henderson said. “We just didn’t execute so well at both ends and that cost us. We do have a team that is going to fight no matter what. We just have to get everybody playing well.”
Those who played well: Power forward Cody Zeller, with nine points, 13 rebounds and a team-high seven assists. Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who shot 7-of-13 from the field for 14 points. And point guard Brian Roberts, who finished with six assists and zero turnovers.
Those who didn’t play so well: Shooting guard Lance Stephenson, who shot 0-of-5 and committed four turnovers. And fill-in backup point guard Gary Neal, who shot 4-of-10 from the field and committed four turnovers.
Said Clifford: “What I told the guys after the game, it’s a conscious decision for all of us: We’re playing without this guy (Walker), but there’s a toughness and an intelligence about this group that should allow us to win going forward.”