• Ken Cross

Hornets - Playoffs…

If the Charlotte Hornets indeed are left out of the playoffs, the period between a January 23 loss to the Washington Wizards and the All-Star break will most likely be the defining moment as the team lost 12 out of 13 games and fell from sixth in the Eastern Conference to 10th. That said, Charlotte is only one and a half games back of eighth place, where the Milwaukee Bucks currently stand.

In that slide, the Charlotte defense has struggled as opponents’ have consistently shot in the mid-40 percent range while the team has struggled in forcing turnovers all season.

Turning opponents over has consistently become a huge issue. In the string, the Hornets forced single digits in turnovers in six of the 13 games. That bottomed out in a February 11 home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers when the Hornets forced only six turnovers and scored a season-low six points off those.

“We were playing really good defensively early in the year,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford commented, as he noted the defensive woes started about 30 games ago, “We were playing good offense and it was off our defense.”

Defensively, the Hornets need a shot blocker as they are 28th in the league in blocked shots. Rim protection is a must and if they don’t come up with a rim protector who can also score in the post as well, then the defensive stops are going to have to come from the guards almost consistently every night.

On offense, who is going to step up consistently beside of All-Star Kemba Walker, who has averaged career-highs in points per game (22.4), field goal percentage (.445), three-pointer made (267) and three-point field goal percentage (.390)?

Walker has a tremendous motor as he showed some signs of wear as he played 42 minutes against the Clippers and went 4-of-18 from the floor. Clifford noted that in putting two players on the ball when Kemba catches, it is paramount to get the basketball descending on the paint.

“We need to be moving the ball and the ball has got to get in the paint,” said Clifford after the Toronto loss, “They put two to the ball and we were throwing threes. When they put two to the ball, we have to get it going to the basket more.”

This makes it a must for possibly Nic Batum or even Frank Kaminsky, who can diversify his shots and where he scores from. Kaminsky scored a career-high 27 points in a 90-85 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Feb. 15.

“They basically committed to saying anybody but Kemba Walker, so they put two on the ball, got the ball out of his hands and we weren't able to take advantage of it,” said Clifford, after a fourth quarter meltdown in the loss at Toronto before the All-Star break.

Batum is a good three-point shooter and works well of his cuts. He is an excellent rebounding guard as he is third in the NBA with 7.1 per contest. The key is for him to consistently step up when teams run an extra guard at Kemba, forcing him to give the basketball up.

Kaminsky is good when he can catch early in the post before the defense sets and he can hit the three-ball as well. The difference for him is the threes don’t come as easily as they did at Wisconsin, because of the length and quickness of NBA defenses.

He had a career high 27 points in 37 minutes in the loss to Toronto as he went 11-of-18 from the field.

“He took advantage because they were doubling Kemba with his guy,” said Clifford, “There was a lot of room out there.”

Assuming the Hornets do not do any business at the trade deadline to acquire a scorer in the post, Cody Zeller, who is averaging a career high at 10.9 points per game, must step up even more on offense. Ironically, he missed 10 games in the slide with a quad contusion.

He has a big body at 7-0, 240, and reach, but he still need to catch on the block without having to make a play straight off a challenge. Defensively, he is not really a shot blocker, but his defensive positioning combined with his size can allow him to guard the paint. The key is being able to get in position to try to take away the key post moves of his opponents.

As the Hornets move forward, moving both the offensive and defensive production to where it was two months ago is a must. The key for the offense is for any one or two players to step up beside of Kemba on a nightly basis.

“Our quality of shot is good,” said Clifford, “I feel like we are skilled. With the guys we have, I feel like we can create good shots. If we are going to get going, we have to shoot the ball better.”

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