Gone for the better portion of two weeks, the Charlotte Hornets were hoping to finish their winding road trip off with a notable outing in San Francisco.
For obvious reasons.
“I thought 3-3 would have been great,” coach Steve Clifford said. “We’ve got two more good players to get back, but we’ve got our guys back so we are a lot better team. It’s going to take us a little bit to get more organized.”
That was apparent throughout the Hornets’ excursion out west, which concluded with a 110-105 loss to Golden State at Chase Center on Tuesday night, forcing them to settle for a 2-4 mark on a trek that featured plenty of ups and downs.
Like being on the wrong end of Nikola Jokić’s historic game, when the Denver center and two-time reigning MVP became the first player to collect at least 40 points, 25 rebounds and 10 assists in a game since Wilt Chamberlain did it in 1968. What about that night in Sacramento when LaMelo Ball provided a huge lift?
Or getting mauled by the LA Clippers. Don’t forget holding off LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. And running out of fuel in the second half against Portland.
These were 12 days filled with plenty of moments that taught Clifford a few things about his team.
“The reality is we’ve really had this group for this trip,” Clifford said. “Melo got back … Gordon got back … so these are first, I believe, maybe the third or fourth game that we’ve had what you could say in some regard would be our projected lineup. They understand that. And the whole thing is we’ve got to make progress.”
Here are six things we learned during the Hornets’ lengthy trip leading into a four-game homestand that tips off against Oklahoma City on Thursday:
Snoozing early is costly
Three of their four defeats were partially attributable to the Hornets (9-26) falling into hefty deficits early on. It forced them to play catch up.
With their small margin for error, that’s a disastrous formula. Having to climb out of an 18-point second-half hole like they did against Golden State necessitates a near-flawless performance, and that’s simply not in the Hornets’ makeup.
“Everybody always says you don’t have to watch an NBA game until the fourth quarter,” Clifford said. “And actually, if you’ve been around, it’s anything but that. The fourth quarter – and this is factual – is never the most important quarter. Never. I’ve been doing this 20-plus years. First quarter, second quarter, third quarter … every year if you look at it, a lot of ways you can say it’s the first quarter. Especially on the road. Right from the head it’s a big advantage.”
Add Kelly Oubre to the list of the Hornets’ walking wounded.
Oubre sat out against the Warriors, missing his first game of the season with a sprained left hand. He had been one of the few to avoid the injury bug, starting 34 games before recently moving to his expected bench role once the Hornets’ starting five got fully healed.
The Hornets had trouble making up for his lost production against Golden State. Oubre is averaging 20.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game and is also among the league leaders in deflections. The pain apparently was too much and he couldn’t give it a go versus his former team.
“Actually, it’s been for a while,” Clifford said. “You can see during the games he tapes it differently some games. They are trying to figure out the best way for him to play with it. I think he got jammed again (Monday) night, and so it’s been sore for a while.”
DSJ slowly progressing
Although Dennis Smith Jr. was listed as questionable for the second straight day, he once again didn’t suit up and now hasn’t played in five weeks, missing the last 16 games.
Similar to Cody Martin, Smith has increased his level of activity in the last week and is building up his stamina while participating in basketball drills. But the Hornets and Smith are being cautious with their approach in order to prevent him re-tweaking his sprained left ankle. It’s an injury that’s given him a bit of trouble dating back to training camp in September.
“I think he’s close,” Clifford said. “I think he wants to make sure, and we want to make sure, that when he comes back it’s not going to be something that’s lingering or not 100%. I think it’s really as simple as that. He did a lot (in practice on Sunday), he was sore (Monday. But I do think he is a lot closer.”
LaMelo’s growth and fouls
Ball is slowly finding his rhythm and still constantly fighting through foul trouble.
By recording 21 points, 10 assists and four rebounds against the Warriors, Ball fell just shy of extending his impressive streak. He had posted at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in his last five games, which represented the longest stretch in franchise history. The streak of eight straight games topping 20 points also is a career best.
Save for his foul woes, Ball seems to be rounding in a good all-around form after being relegated to spectator status for 24 games this season thanks to a sprained right ankle.
“He puts so much pressure on the defense,” Clifford said. “We play faster, obviously, when he’s out there. But I think the biggest thing for him going forward – and he’s doing a good job with it – is his pick-and-roll offense. He’s been super-efficient both in the middle of the floor and the side of the floor. He puts a lot of pressure on the defense.
“He can make every play, he can score himself, he can hit the roll man and obviously he sprays the ball to whoever is open. So, I think for right now that’s the biggest part of his development, and he’s doing a good job with it.”
Williams has some tools
There’s little doubt who’s serving as the backup center while Nick Richards is out.
Mark Williams got the nod over Kai Jones for the second straight night and the rookie had another one of those tantalizing sequences that displayed his promise. Williams stood his ground on Golden State center James Wiseman in the first quarter, blocking his shot near the rim and igniting a fastbreak punctuated when Williams took a feed from Théo Maledon and finished with a two-handed dunk.
He also had a teaching moment in the third quarter when he got whistled for an offensive foul for setting a bad screen, which wiped out a Théo Maledon 3-pointer. That preceded a nifty post move featuring some nice maneuverability.
The on-the-job training he’s receiving is invaluable.
“He’s super smart,” Clifford said. “This is just before watching the film, but he doesn’t blow a lot of sets, his pick-and-roll coverage tonight was solid again. But his talking and his understanding of what we are trying to do, which is really important at that position, was very good.”
Cranking up the tempo
Although they couldn’t shift it into gear against the Warriors, the Hornets are getting up and down the court. Walking the ball up is an infrequent occurrence.
In their last seven games leading into their date with the Warriors, the Hornets’ pace of 104.9 ranked tops in the NBA over that span. They had also attempted 98.9 shots per game, which was the highest in the league and six better than second-place Utah, and averaged 118.9 points after mustering only 109.4 per game in the initial 27 games of the season.
Pushing the tempo, which is aided by Ball’s return, is proving beneficial.
“Our team was built to run,” Clifford said, “so having him back, it gives us a chance to work on that, get better on that. Now we’ve got to make sure we get back on defense, too. We, for a while, were doing well with our transition defense.
“In the last stretch here – actually the last nine or 10 games – it’s been a big problem area. So, we’ve got to make sure we are running each way.”