Grounded on Groundhog Day: What we learned from the Hornets’ loss to the Chicago Bulls

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

It was actually fitting for the Charlotte Hornets to play on Groundhog Day.

The same issues that have cropped up all season long were a problem yet again Thursday night at the United Center: Careless turnovers. Uninspiring defense. Mental lapses. Things that could have — and should have — been corrected by now.

But because they haven’t, just like when famed groundhog Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, it’s almost inevitable the Hornets are on their way to six more weeks of winter. Or in their case, more losing.

Not much went right for Charlotte in a 114-98 defeat to Chicago, further extinguishing the good vibes it was riding on the heels of a two-game winning streak. Save for a decent start, the Hornets didn’t do much against the Bulls to get overly excited about and weren’t able to put together the same kind of performance that allowed them to knock off Chicago seven days earlier.

“We had the right idea tonight, the right intent,” coach Steve Clifford said. “We played with good effort, we played with good energy. We didn’t shoot the ball well. My point to them was we’ve had times before whe it wasn’t OK, some things.

“But we’ve got to keep playing no matter what when the ball is not going in the basket. And that to me was a big factor in the game.”

Frustrations also bubbled over late in the fourth quarter, when LaMelo Ball got ejected after being slapped with two separate technical fouls in a matter of seconds for arguing a non-call. Ball was incensed and his animated gestures paired with some choice words led to his rapid removal.

“I just lost my composure pretty much,” Ball said. “It’s kind of hard when you are one-on-one, and you expect the refs to make the right call and you get smacked on your arm -- not even your hand. It’s just one of those things.”

Although the outcome was essentially decided with the Hornets (15-38) trailing by 11 points with just over a minute remaining, the timing still wasn’t exactly the best.

“He knows this,” Clifford said. “We have one rule – no fourth-quarter technicals. You can’t take them. That’s inexcusable because the fourth quarter is different. So, we had a couple early in the year. He does it because he wants to win, but you can’t take it there.”

Ball fully knows that and accepted responsibility for his actions, assuring he’ll be more levelheaded next time.

“It’s just a learning lesson,” Ball said. “It’s just life. I’ll keep (composed). You saw LeBron (James) and how he wanted the foul? I wanted the foul, too. We are human. But I calmed down, took a shower and learned from my mistakes.”

Here are some key takeaways from the Hornets’ second straight defeat:

Not enough commitment

Perhaps looking to switch it up after the Hornets’ defense was shredded two nights earlier in Milwaukee, coach Steve Clifford tried to throw a defensive wrinkle at Chicago.

But the Bulls ironed it out. And rather easily.

Whether it was seldom-used backup center Andre Drummond pounding them inside to the tune of eight points and seven rebounds through the first half alone, or Nikola Vucevic mixing finesse in with an uncontested dunk or two, Chicago (24-27) had its way with the Hornets down low.

“I think for us it was just being more decisive with our communication,” Mark Williams said. “There were lot of times when there was some hesitancy. And just committing to whatever that call is and making that call for one, but when we do make that call, just committing to it fully.

“I think the past couple of games we’ve done a good job. But tonight we had a lot of lapses. I think for us to have success, we can’t have those lapses. And if we do, we can’t have as many occasions where that happens. It’s a long season and a couple of plays might happen here and there, but we definitely want to minimize that and do our best on the defensive end.”

Yielding 30 points in the paint to the Bulls in the initial two quarters set a bad precedent and made it more difficult to trim a deficit as large as 17 points. Cleaning that up against Chicago had would’ve gone a long way in alleviating the uphill climb they faced throughout the game’s final 29 minutes.

“We just gave up too many,” Mason Plumlee said. “Some of their guys were super-efficient. We let (Ayo) Dosunmu get to the rim too much on blown coverages, and it was just a tough one. With Vuc, he’s different. When he pops, trying to figure when we had the ball squared and where we still needed to provide help created an issue.”

Deep struggles

Maybe some of the frigid, sub-freezing air whipping outside off Lake Michigan eventually made it into the arena. Wherever the case, the Hornets went ice-cold from 3-point range in the final three quarters, and they paid for it.

After draining five of their first nine attempts, the Hornets clanked nearly all of their remaining 26 attempts beyond the arc. They shot 20% from 3-point land, making 7 of 35, while Chicago nailed 11 of 28 attempts. Yet another one of the subtle differences the Hornets couldn’t overcome.

“It’s definitely going to make it tougher, but got to find a way,” Ball said. “I feel like that shouldn’t have hurt us. We should have done some other stuff.”

“You’ve got to be able to play through that,” Clifford said. “We did get a lot of good looks and the ball didn’t go in the basket. And that’s where one of the areas of growth that we haven’t gotten to as well is you’ve got to keep playing defense, keep rebounding.

“Within a game being frustrated is part of it. You are not going to make every shot every night. But you can defend, you can play smart, you can play physical. And that’s what we need to do.”

On the Mark

The on-court education for Williams continues, as he remains the primary backup to starter Mason Plumlee over Nick Richards. And the rookie once again showed flashes of his impressive skill set during his 17 minutes.

Williams was efficient, nailing all but one of his seven attempts and displaying his nifty footwork and length around the basket. His 13 points were the most by a reserve for the Hornets and the 7-footer also swatted three shots, which includes an emphatic rejection where he snatched Coby White’s shot out of the air with one hand.

For the most part, he matched up well with Drummond and Vucevic.

“It felt good,” Williams said. “Obviously, a guy like that has played 11 years in the league and obviously Vuc, too. (They’re) both experienced bigs. So, to hold my own against both of them felt good for sure.”