Ultimately a really disappointing one in Charlotte last night where I tuned in to watch two teams desperately fighting for playoff seeding. The Hornets had entered the game winners of 7 in a row, newly-minted darlings of the analytics community and rocking the best record in the NBA outside of Golden State and San Antonio since the turn of the calendar year. What’s more, facing a Dallas squad unravelling with 5 straight Ls, and on their home court where they rock a killer 25-9 advantage on the season, I thought this would be the perfect chance to see Buzz City in action. Wellllll nope. Just a sweet Ray Felton revenge game and a rough loss for the Bees.
The Hornets came out absolutely flat in the first quarter: missing a ton of three pointers, turning the ball over, and somehow letting the ancient Mavericks run them up and down the floor. While I was fairly impressed by their defense in the opening frame, they failed to take advantage of Dallas’s bizarre three guard opening line-up, featuring Chandler Parsons at the 4 and Dirk Nowitzki playing center (!!!). I know the Hornets probably didn’t want Big Al Jefferson chasing the German marksman around the court, but it said a lot about Rick Carlisle winning the coaching battle over Steve Clifford, that Charlotte was unable to bully those two softies into more than 18 points in the first.
And this has been a very sharp team this season. Kemba Walker has emerged in a big way, upping both his FG and 3 point shooting by over 4%, to go along with the league’s illest crossover East of Cleveland. (Seriously crossover is the second thing that comes up when you google Kemba Walker right after “Stats”). More impressive even, may be Nic Batum who the Hornets got at a seriously discounted rate over the summer and whose swiss army knife skill-set could command something in the range of even $25 million when the salary cap balloons. Getting defensive stopper Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back from injury next year should give this team a serious wing rotation, as Marvin Williams, Courtney Lee, and Jeremy Lin’s hair (each style worse than the last) have all given Buzz City good, underrated minutes this season.
The only problem is that Kidd-Gilchrist isn’t here now and the whole Hornets experience has a feel of smoke and mirrors for me. I can see why these guys crack the top 10 in offensive efficiency; Batum is better than anyone they had last year and they also shoot the 3rd most threes per game outside of Golden State and Houston. What’s odd is that this team has also fashioned a top 10 defense (they’re number 9 in both) around the undersized Walker and Cody Zeller’s spritely figure sadly being a huge upgrade over the flat-footed Jefferson. While they’ve put together a winning streak over the last couple months by beating up on bad teams at home, these statistics are measured over the course of a season that is slowly becoming a more and more legitimate sample size.
Strong coaching is always suggested (see my Boston article!) for a team that may be outperforming its talent level, and it’s true that Steve Clifford is highly regarded as a defensive tactician able to create a sound scheme around less than stellar players. By moving Jefferson to the bench this year, and allowing the team to play a more uptempo pace and fire away from deep, they’ve also begun to pair that with one of the league’s more dangerous offensive attacks. I’m not doubting that these guys are good or worthy of a playoff berth.
My question is why are they allowing a slumping Dallas team to smack them around at home? Charlotte came out after a pretty rough first quarter to put up just 15 in the second, and walked into the locker room getting booed by their own fans. Not only is that a depressing moment in a feel good couple of weeks, but the season is starting to get awfully close to the point where all these games take on added significance. Charlotte may have put a little distance between itself and the playoff fringes, but the recent injury to Jae Crowder casts some serious doubt over the Celtics being able to maintain the 3 seed. Pushing for that slot means avoiding Cleveland in the second round of the playoffs, or at least pulling for the 4th seed and homecourt advantage where they have been very strong this whole year.
That being said, I’m not sure how much this matters. For all the talk of greater parity in the Eastern Conference and a less than enthusiastic Cleveland team, I have a hard time seeing anyone in the East taking more than a game or maybeee 2 off the defending Conference Champions, which was certainly confirmed after Monday night’s outing. It may have been swept up in the awesomeness of last year’s post-season Warriors, but there was only one real competitive series in all eight of the first round. While it’s true that increased parity may give us one or two good ones this year in the middle of the Eastern bracket, and while it’s true that it’s been a great season for a still young and improving Hornets team, I think we’re all going to need to wait for the second round for the really compelling basketball to begin.