Scott Fowler

Halfway through season, Charlotte Hornets are mediocre, have much to prove

Charlotte Hornets forward Frank Kaminsky (right) tries to gain control of a loose ball Wednesday night against Portland. The Hornets won 107-85, holding an opponent under 100 points for the first time in their past nine games.
Charlotte Hornets forward Frank Kaminsky (right) tries to gain control of a loose ball Wednesday night against Portland. The Hornets won 107-85, holding an opponent under 100 points for the first time in their past nine games. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The good news for the Charlotte Hornets? Despite a recent five-game losing streak, they would have squeaked into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed if the postseason had started Thursday afternoon.

The bad news? Halfway through the NBA season, the Hornets (21-21) have shown no ability to defeat the Eastern Conference's three elite teams. Charlotte is a combined 0-7 against Cleveland, Toronto and Boston.

One of the best chances for the Hornets to beat one of those teams comes Friday night at home against Toronto (28-14). It's a game worth watching for several reasons, not the least of which is that Toronto versus Charlotte is also a possible first-round playoff matchup.

“We all know how good a team Toronto is,” Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker said late Wednesday night. “For us to get where we want to be, we have to beat teams like that.”

Wednesday night was a rarity for the Hornets: They actually played good team defense. It was the first time in January the Hornets had held an opponent to under 100 points. That defense keyed Charlotte's surprisingly easy 107-85 win over Portland.

Now the key is to see if Charlotte can do it twice in a row. Consistency has been a difficult concept for the Hornets to grasp, especially on that recent 0-5 road trip.

Hornets coach Steve Clifford has been pulling his few remaining hairs out over the way his team has made mistakes.

“Look at our team,” Clifford said. “We are not physically imposing. We are not playing three guys who are going to average 23 (points) a night. What we are is we have exceptional basketball IQ, skill level and intelligence. And that only matters if you take advantage of it.

“So if you're going to make mistakes and have dumb turnovers -- we lost a game the other night with 19 turnovers -- we're not that team. ...We can't turn it over. We can't beat ourselves. We've got to be hard to play against.”

The Hornets finished last season 14 games above .500 -- 48-34 overall -- because they were hard to play against. This team is as good offensively, but it is worse defensively.

It's not that difficult a concept, you know: Just hold the other team under 100 points. The Hornets are 14-1 this season when they do that, but 7-20 when they don't.

Charlotte's best defensive players are Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams. MKG has not looked like the same defensive stopper to me this season as he was before the shoulder injuries that cost him almost all of the 2015-16 season. And Williams can and must be better -- his communication skills and athleticism have to set a tone.

There are other problems, too. Center Roy Hibbert is playing on a bad knee and hasn’t helped the Hornets as much as they’d hoped (Wednesday night's 16-point performance notwithstanding). Walker and backcourt mate Nic Batum allow dribble penetration more often than they should. Center Cody Zeller can still be manhandled. And on and on.

Every basketball team has its problems. But Charlotte's margin for error is small. These Hornets often seem like the kid you knew in high school who “has some academic potential but just doesn't apply himself enough.”

Every high school in America has a version of that kid. And that kid, like the Hornets, usually ends up making mediocre grades and not going where he wants to go.

You can't get much more average than 21-21. But the Hornets have 40 regular-season games left. There is time to show they can apply themselves.

“We need to play smart,” Clifford said, “because that's who we are -- smart.”

Time to prove it.

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