The Hornets survived lately on defense; Sunday that resolve flickered against Hawks

Rick Bonnell
·4 min read

It has been a while since an NBA scorer made the Charlotte Hornets look silly.

For long stretches of Sunday’s game, Atlanta Hawk Bogdan Bogdanovic made the Hornets look silly.

Bogdanovic made a 30-footer Sunday that could have been launched from Gastonia and still fallen through. He made eight 3-pointers in totaling 32 points, as Atlanta won this game 105-101.

The Hornets’ biggest flaw Sunday was a terrible start offensively. They missed eight of their first nine shots and trailed 24-7 eight minutes into this game.

Despite that, they recovered to lead by 10. That the Hornets were even in this game in the fourth quarter is a reminder that they’ve hung on of late with their best stretch of defense this season.

When LaMelo Ball broke his wrist March 20, that was a body blow to the Hornets’ offense. When Gordon Hayward and Malik Monk also were injured, it could have been a cue to pack it in.

Instead, the Hornets have gone 7-4 in that span. They avoided crumbling by being the seventh-rated defense in that stretch: Giving up 107.7 points per 100 possessions.

Forward Miles Bridges has been at the center of that defensive resolve. So it was aggravating how the Hornets played in the fourth quarter, giving up 30 points and 11-of-22 shooting from the field.

“We made a lot of defensive errors and let them get way too comfortable,” said Bridges, who finished with 23 points and seven rebounds. “Usually, our defense makes people uncomfortable.”

I don’t know if that last statement has been true all season, but certainly of late.

When Ball went out, the Hornets lost their offensive “engine,” to use coach James Borrego’s term. The Hornets were inevitably going to slow down and score fewer easy transition baskets in Ball’s absence. Then, when you subtract Hayward and Monk offensively, it becomes scrounging for every point.

Borrego told his team the only way to stay playoff-viable was to raise the defense. These players took the challenge.

Stay in front of people

I asked Bridges last week what’s changed about Charlotte’s defense. He said it’s nothing so technical, more a commitment to stay in front of individual opponents with the ball.

Borrego endorses Bridges’ description; the defense of late reminds him of the end of last season when the Hornets upset the Raptors, Rockets and Heat with stifling defense.

He said this team has been more accountable — individually and collectively — lately about not allowing opponents to break them down. Players like Cody Martin and Brad Wanamaker aren’t dynamic scorers, but they have that combination of toughness and defensive anticipation to help make a difference.

Which made the fourth quarter Sunday all the more galling. You can’t give up eight points off offensive rebounds and commit five fouls in the last 12 minutes and expect to win a close game. Particularly when Lou Williams lit it up with 10 fourth-quarter points.

“We had (to give) a lot of unnecessary help (defensively) and people were getting open 3s out of that,” Bridges described. “You can’t leave Lou Williams or Bogdanovic open for 3 in the clutch.”

Yet another starter injured

Sunday had consequences: The Hawks passed the Hornets for fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings (Charlotte owns the tiebreaker from winning the prior two games).

But the bigger concern could be starting center P.J. Washington suffering a sprained ankle in the second half. Washington did not return to the game and the Hornets had no update postgame on his condition.

Borrego starting the 6-foot-7 Washington at center, rather than power forward, spoke to the shuffling all the other injuries have already brought on. If Washington is hurt for any length of time, Cody Zeller would likely start and Bismack Biyombo would return to the rotation.

There’s opportunity this week, with home games against a banged-up Lakers team Tuesday and a lottery-bound Cavs team Wednesday.

But who they play won’t make much difference if the Hornets defend like they did in Sunday’s fourth quarter.

Just like Bridges said — they’ve got to stay in front of people. And Sunday that mantra lost a touch of resolve.