Charlotte Hornets

Practice pays as Charlotte Hornets rout Denver Nuggets, 104-86

The records will say the Charlotte Hornets beat the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

But really this game was won Friday.

While the Nuggets took the day off, after getting thumped in Memphis Thursday night, the Hornets had probably their longest and most strenuous practice of the regular season. The intent was to acclimate the Hornets to Denver’s mile-high altitude.

The results were apparent: They led by as many as 36 points in a 104-86 blowout at the Pepsi Center.

The Nuggets, not the Hornets, looked like the strangers to thin air. The Hornets (20-27) scored 58 in the paint and led by 32 at halftime. The defense was striking: Charlotte held the Nuggets to 36 percent shooting (33-of-92) and outrebounded the Nuggets 57-44.

The Hornets swept the series with the Nuggets 2-0 and both margins were wide. The Hornets won 110-82 in Charlotte in December.

Based on that game and a Bobcats sweep of the Nuggets last season, Denver coach Brian Shaw said before the game he planned to double-team Hornets center Al Jefferson on every touch.

Shaw made good on that promise, holding Jefferson to four points on 2-of-7 shooting in the first half.

But by so selling out to defending one player, the Nuggets opened up the floor to everyone else. Power forward Cody Zeller had a career-high 21 points, plus eight rebounds. Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds. Little-used reserve big man Jason Maxiell had 14 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots.

“It didn’t look like they double a lot,” said Hornets guard Gerald Henderson. “Their rotations weren’t so good, so we got through them.”

Best indication of that: Thirty-two of the Hornets’ 44 baskets were assisted. Guard Lance Stephenson finished the game with a career-high 13 assists, often feeding Zeller for layups and dunks.

”I’ve really been struggling with my jump shot. I’m trying to be aggressive in other ways – rebounding and getting people involved,” said Stephenson, who shot 2-of-10. “If getting people involved is my thing on this team, then that’s what I’ll do.”

Coach Steve Clifford liked the sound of that.

“He’s a terrific passer,” Clifford said. “He has vision and the ability to deliver passes from the perimeter and in tight corners.”

Clifford said his team is developing the right habits.

“I loved our readiness to play – we defended and we ran,” Clifford said. “We’re protecting the paint and not fouling a lot. And best of all our deflections are up. We had 24 in the first half which was our high” for the season.

It all started with that practice.

“Nobody was asking out. It was very spirited, very competitive,” Clifford said. “It helped us tonight.”

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