The Charlotte Hornets are among seven teams fighting for the final four playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
In order for the Hornets to secure a playoff spot for a second straight season for the first time since their reincarnation in 2004, Tom Sorenson of the Charlotte Observer says the Hornets need to attend to several liabilities. One of the things that Sorenson mentioned was the need for them to tighten their defense. He also said that the Hornets need to acquire another scorer to take pressure off star Kemba Walker.
Charlotte is currently in the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference after dropping seven of its last 10 games. The Hornets snapped a season-long five-game winning streak with a 107-85 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday. Walker led five Hornets in double figures with 23 points as he made eight of 14 shots, including four of eight from beyond the arc.
“I almost forgot what it felt like to win,” said Walker. “It’s been awhile but it feels good, especially here at home. We came out with great intensity from the first minute of the game.”
Leading 79-73, Charlotte broke the game open in the fourth quarter as reserve forward Frank Kaminsky scored eight of his 11 points in the last stanza. Roy Hibbert also had a big game off the bench, tallying 16 points — on seven of eight shooting — six rebounds and two blocks in 22 minutes. Nic Batum added 17 points and seven assists while Marco Belinelli contributed 13 points.
The Hornets outscored the Blazers 28-13 in the fourth to mark the first time in the last nine games that they have kept their opponent under the century mark. Charlotte held Portland to 35.1 percent shooting from the floor (33-of-94) and 28.1 percent from beyond the arc (8-of-31) for the game. The Hornets improved to 14-1 this season when they held their opponent under the century mark.
Prior to holding the league’s No. 9 offense to 85 points on Wednesday, Charlotte’s defense had been subpar in the month of January. The Hornets have been outscored by 2.3 points in eight games this month as they are allowing 107.9 points a game. However, they are holding their opponents to 43.8 percent shooting from the floor and 35.5 percent from beyond the arc.
The Hornets’ biggest problems on the defensive end have been three-point defense and offensive rebounds. They are giving up a season-high 11.6 triples and 11.8 offensive rebounds a contest this month. The Hornets, who rank 10th in scoring defense, have one of the top defenses in the NBA though they are grabbing a season-low 75.0 percent of the defensive boards this month.
Another problem for the Hornets has been getting off to slow starts. Charlotte has trailed in 23 of the 42 games after the first quarter. The Hornets have scored only 30 points in the opening quarter in two of their last 11 contests.
A major reason, as Sorenson pointed out, for the Hornets struggles on the offensive end is that they don’t have a go-to scorer other than Walker. A Hornets’ player has scored the most points in the game just 17 times, with Walker doing it 15 times; Batum is the only other Hornet to do so (twice). Charlotte is 16th in the league in scoring, producing 105.0 points a game.
Walker is averaging a career-best 23.0 points to go along with 5.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds. He is also shooting a career-high 46.2 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from beyond the arc while making 2.8 triples — both career bests.
Walker has led the team in scoring a total of 30 times, including seven of the past 10 times. The problem is that Walker has not moved the ball as well recently and has had five assists or less in eight of the time games and has shot less than 45 percent in five of those contests. Charlotte is 9-6 when Walker doles out six or more assists a game and 10-9 when he shoots over 45 percent from the floor.
Batum, who has missed two games during the recent 10 games stretch, has stepped up his scoring this month but has struggled with his shooting. The 28-year-old has scored in double-figures in four of his last six appearances but is shooting just 36.6 percent from the field and 18.7 percent from beyond the arc in January. Batum has led the team in scoring seven times this season and is averaging a career-best 15.0 points a contest.
Batum is a versatile wing who can rebound, defend, and pass. However, his efficiency over the last three years has been below his career averages. Batum, who has recorded 11 double-doubles, is shooting 39.8 percent from the field and 32.0 percent on three-point attempts for the season. He has a scoring efficiency of 1.201 and a shooting efficiency of 46.1.
Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, Kaminsky, and Belinelli also average double figures. None of those four can create their own shot, however. Plus, Zeller and Hibbert are the only two players shooting above 50 percent from the floor.
Charlotte has a lot to prove when they continue their five-game homestand on Friday. The Hornets host the Toronto Raptors on Friday and then the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday. The Hornets are 13-7 at home and 7-7 in back-to-back games. They conclude the homestand with games on Monday against Washington and Wednesday against Golden State.
The Hornets are 1-3 against the four teams this year. Charlotte lost to Toronto in November 113-111 as the Raptors outscored the Hornets 34-29 in the final quarter. DeMar DeRozan led the Raptors with 34 points while Walker poured in a season-high 40 points.
The Hornets are also only 5-13 against teams with a 0.500 or better record and have yet to win a game decided by three points or less (0-5).
[Featured Image by Chuck Burton/AP Images]