Hornets fall to Rockets: Three takeaways from the team as Charlotte falls to 1-3

Although things have been a little up-and-down for the Charlotte Hornets through the season’s initial week, there’s at least one constant.

And it’s not of the flattering variety.

“What we haven’t done, we haven’t started well,” coach Steve Clifford said Wednesday. “You’ve got to play 48 minutes in this league. We didn’t start well against Atlanta, we were able to overcome that. We didn’t start well against Detroit (and) it was the difference in the game. And then the other night after the first 5 1/2 minutes, we actually played well.

“The effort has been good, but playing hard in this league is not enough. Playing hard gives you a chance, especially a team like we have. But we’ve got to be purposeful from the beginning and it’s been different things different nights.”

As a result, the Hornets are scuffling and just can’t seem to piece it all together. Their inconsistencies were once again an issue, directly leading to an unflattering 128-119 loss to the previously winless Houston Rockets at Toyota Center.

Except this time, it wasn’t the long jumpers early in the shot clock, which often ignite fastbreaks. Or not getting the ball into the paint enough, lessening their problematic scoring droughts.

Instead, the Hornets’ unforced errors, turnovers and inability to stabilize things defensively were the main culprits against the Rockets. Factor in star point guard LaMelo Ball struggling again offensively and it was too much for Charlotte (1-3) to overcome and halt its three-game losing streak on the heels of their season-opening victory.

“First and third quarter, we were down 10 so that’s kind of hard to play from,” Ball said. “We’ve just got to pretty much tighten things up.”

With all the leaks, it’s going to take more than a pair of vice grips and a crescent wrench to do just that. Failed rotations allowed Houston, which had made 17 3-pointers combined in three games, to knock down a season-best 21 shots beyond the arc.

“Our defense was awful,” Clifford said. “From our pick-and-roll coverages to mistakes, things we worked on for two days. And they made us pay. … In this league you can’t pick and choose when you are going to do coverages, not do coverages, do your job, not do your job.”

So, exactly what’s going on with the slow movements picking up open men?

“That’s a good question,”Gordon Hayward said. “That’s something Cliff is probably wondering as well. Some of it is just on us. We know what we’re supposed to do. We’ve just got to do it.”

And that includes eliminating their snail-paced opening quarters.

“I thought we started a little fast,” Ball said. “It’s just like when it gets to the four-minute mark … we didn’t play the whole first quarter. We just played the first couple of minutes hard and then when it got to the five-minute mark we relaxed a little. We’ve just got to stay on it.”

Or else there could be a repeat of their nightmarish 2022-23 campaign.

“We saw the way we started last year and there’s no time to waste — at all,” Hayward said. “I remember talking (in the preseason) about getting off to a fast start. This is the exact opposite of that. Hopefully, we can watch the film and learn some things.”

Here’s some more notable things the Hornets said after their loss to Houston:

LaMelo Ball: ‘I’m just keeping positive’

Should there be concern with LaMelo Ball’s cold shooting?

Ball misfired on seven of his first 11 attempts against the Rockets, including going 0-for-4 from 3-point range until he sank a pair late in the fourth quarter. Two days after he had his 53-game streak of making at least one 3-pointer snapped in Monday’s loss, Ball struggled with his stroke before finding it late and totaled 19 points and five assists.

Now 18 for 59 from the field, he came into the night making just 25% of his attempts from 3-point range and overall.

“I ain’t hoop in a minute, so it’s just conditioning and getting all that back and everything,” Ball said. “But I feel all right. I feel like stuff is going to come back. I’m just keeping positive.”

His teammates are staying in his ear in the meantime.

“I just try to tell him to stay positive,” Hayward said. “The thing that I’ve tried to tell him is he’s such a gifted and talented passer, he’s got to first think about getting everybody going and getting our team going, getting us some good looks. Because he can do it at a level that not very many guys can. And then his shots will come after that.

“But I think more than anything we’ve got to worry about the defensive end. Not the offensive end. And we’ve got to figure that part out.”

More physicality

A big part of getting up into the opposition starts with attitude. And Clifford wants to see more of it from the Hornets. Especially after they were bullied somewhat during their three-game homestand.

“Yeah, it’s got to be a big part of our team,” Clifford said. “If you want to look at a team game whether we can surprise people, which I think we can, then I think their size and the physicality part has to develop that way. That has to be a position to me, as we move forward, where you say that’s going to be an advantage for us most nights.

“Last year the Rockets were the best offensive rebounding team in the NBA. …. And like a lot of other teams, we are trying to do the same thing. Their perimeter guys are coming to the glass more. So that’s a part I see as we evolve here, needing to be a strength for our team.”

Rotation roulette

Among the things Clifford and his staff are trying to figure out: which player combinations work best together. The answers could still be weeks away, given the Hornets are missing two injured players — Cody Martin and Frank Ntilikina — and Miles Bridges isn’t eligible to play until Nov. 17 when his suspension is complete.

But it’s something Clifford is still sorting through.

He’s experimenting with a few lineups, mixing them in with combinations he’s already been going with frequently — such as teaming Brandon Miller and JT Thor together as the first duo off the bench. Clifford has also utilized reserve Théo Maledon as a combo guard alongside Terry Rozier and Ball more than he did last season.

In general, making it all work cohesively is an ongoing process.

“That’s ever evolving,” Clifford said. “That’s every day. To be honest with you, I think once you start playing, I think if you talk to most coaches, that’s what you spend your time on. But I do have to be careful in that it still starts with you want the guys on your team to be in rhythm when they are playing.

“And you can’t just do,’We are going to play match-up basketball every night,’ because you can’t be taking guys out. I really think if a guy doesn’t play at least six minutes, you can’t expect him to play well. You try to get to a certain rotation and a lot of that starts with your primary scorers and what’s best for them. And then the role players kind of fill in around that. So, you have the best chance to be good on offense, defense and rebounding for 48 minutes.”