For all the dazzle the Charlotte Hornets can give you this season – and there is a lot of it – they still haven’t done two things that they must to become an elite NBA team.
First: Beat somebody really good.
Second: Play consistent defense.
At 20-17 entering Saturday’s road game at San Antonio, the Hornets have done a number of things right to hold down the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference if the playoffs began today. Kemba Walker should make the All-Star team and has been playing extraordinarily well – the 20 points he scored in the fourth quarter alone Thursday at Detroit almost brought Charlotte back from a 19-point deficit with 10 minutes to go. Marco Belinelli is better than I thought he would be and almost made one of the coolest buzzer-beaters in NBA history Thursday. Cody Zeller continues to get better.
But the Hornets also have given up 115, 112, 118 and 121 points in their past four games. And largely because they don’t lock down enough on defense, they never seem to beat the NBA’s best teams.
Charlotte is 0-6 so far against the best three teams in the East (Cleveland, Toronto and Boston). Another chance for a signature win comes Saturday at San Antonio, but the 29-7 Spurs are very difficult to beat at home. The Hornets are in the midst of a strenuous five-game road trip that also includes games at Houston and Boston.
What we’re looking at right now is an entertaining Hornets team that is going to go out in the first or second round of the NBA playoffs if it can’t improve on defense. The Hornets get beaten off the dribble too often and, despite coach Steve Clifford’s caustic reminders, aren’t physical enough often enough.
This is compounded by the fact Clifford likes to play his highest-scoring lineup in the fourth quarter, which often leaves Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the bench for long stretches. MKG’s forte is defense – he did an admirable job against Russell Westbrook Wednesday night in a win – but he can’t play it from the pine. And Roy Hibbert is such an offensive liability that his rim protection is usually a non-factor.
On the other hand, the Hornets sure can score. Walker has 99 three-pointers, second-best in the Eastern Conference. And Charlotte’s 44-point fourth quarter against Detroit Thursday was a thing of beauty – it was the most points Charlotte had scored in any quarter this season and came without Nic Batum (hyperextended right knee).
The outburst almost completed a miraculous comeback. Belinelli threw an inbounds pass to himself off a Detroit defender’s back with 0.5 seconds to go and then banked in the ensuing three-pointer. It would have been the NBA’s best buzzer-beater of the year – except for the unfortunate fact it came right after the buzzer.
It was an “almost” play in what has been an “almost” type of season so far. The Hornets are about halfway through the season and aren’t playing badly, but they also aren’t playing that well.
Unlike the Carolina Panthers, the Hornets should make the playoffs this season. But unless they play stronger defense and learn how to beat the big-time teams, they aren’t going to do much when they get there.