Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets hold off Washington Wizards with late free throws

The Charlotte Hornets understand and accept the deal: Everyone has to do a little more because the guy who was doing the most is out at least another five weeks.

Point guard Kemba Walker was this team’s most valuable player, and it wasn’t really close. Yet now, with Walker recovering from knee surgery, his team is 5-1 in his absence.

How do you quite explain that after the Hornets’ 92-88 victory Monday against the 31-18 Washington Wizards?

“Last year I was the one who was out and the team still played well. Then I came back and Kemba missed some time with his ankle,” said center Al Jefferson.

“This team is used to playing without key guys. Coach gave us confidence that other guys would step up. That’s what we do and that’s why we have a great team.”

“Great” might be a reach – the Hornets are still six games below .500 at 21-27 – but they are certainly on the rise. They have won 11 of their past 14 games to climb back into playoff contention.

This three-game road trip looked like a challenge, but the Hornets went 2-1. After a close loss in San Antonio, the Hornets blew out the Nuggets in Denver, then beat the team with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.

They did so by shooting well in the first half (23 of 42 from the field) and by playing great defense in the second half. The Wizards scored 39 points after halftime on 14-of-37 shooting.

The Hornets stifled the Wizards’ starting big men, with Marcin Gortat and Nene combining for 12 points.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Washington’s star backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beat was outscored by Brian Roberts and Gerald Henderson 35 to 34.

Henderson and Roberts put the finishing touches on this victory, with each hitting two free throws in the last 15 seconds to maintain a two-possession lead.

After a slow first half, Jefferson finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds. Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist contributed 13 points and 13 rebounds.

“We know they’re a great team. They’re loaded with a great bench,” Jefferson said. “We knew how well we’d have to play.”

Hornets coach Steve Clifford tightened his rotation, as he’d been looking to do for weeks. He played nine guys, giving more extended minutes to Kidd-Gilchrist in particular. His 37 minutes were a season-high.

That shorter rotation meant rookie P.J. Hairston didn’t play. Clifford said that’s no negative reflection on Hairston, but rather an effort to give veterans enough time to get in a game rhythm.

Shooting guard Gary Neal, who’d been in a shooting slump, made 5 of 11 from the field for 12 points. Among those points were two 3-pointers in the second half that held off what had been an 8-0 Wizards run to end the third quarter.

“It stinks for me because I want to play P.J., but it’s what the (Wizards) did last season – playing fewer guys more minutes so they play well,” Clifford said.

“It will be kind of game-to-game. I don’t want to get away from P.J. because we’ll need him. But for tonight I decided to do that.

“We’ll take it day-by-day and see how it goes.”

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