Given it happened in the final preseason game against one of the teams in the Eastern Conference’s upper echelon, it was easy to overlook.
When the Boston Celtics dissected the Charlotte Hornets with ease nearly two weeks ago, not many alarm bells rang, with most figuring the Hornets’ defensive problems could be possibly attributed to things that didn’t warrant much concern.
It appears to be time to rethink all that, though. The evidence to suggest otherwise is piling up for the 1-2 Hornets.
Defense appeared optional for the Hornets in their 133-121 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night, putting a sour end to a three-game homestand that began with promise following a season-opening come-from-behind victory over Atlanta.
“I wouldn’t say surprised, it’s more just unfortunate,” Mark Williams said. “We know what we are capable of and we are not doing that right now. One hundred, thirty-three points, it’s going to be hard to win any game giving up that many points. I think it’s going to come from within, just everybody locking in on the defensive end.
“And I think this game, we are going to learn from it and hopefully not let a performance like this happen again.”
Yielding far too many easy fastbreaks, uncontested jumpers and wide-open layups isn’t a winning formula. It’s a recipe for disaster and the Hornets don’t even need to break open the cookbook at this point. They’re memorizing it.
Or maybe not.
“Look, we just played two terrific defensive games,” Charlotted coach Steve Clifford said. “So, it’s not like we haven’t been good on defense. We played two games that would have been top 10 games I’m sure — I don’t know what the rankings would be, it’s too early — but we’d be a top-10 defensive team.
“It’s one night that happens, especially early in the year. But we have to fix it now.”
Same goes for controlling the glass.
After getting bullied on the boards by Detroit, finding themselves on the wrong end of a 51-42 edge, the Hornets were only marginally better against the Nets as Brooklyn finished with a 46-39 advantage — despite missing size inside with center Nic Claxton out nursing a sprained left ankle.
That type of rebounding effort won’t get it done for the Hornets.
“If we’re going to be able to be a surprise team, which I think we can, the rebounding piece has got to be a big strength,” Clifford said. “Detroit, I would say looking at things, they will be one of the better rebounding teams in the league. But the differential can’t be that. I mean, it’s the biggest part of the game.”
Here’s what else the Hornets had to say about their second straight defeat:
Brandon Miller’s career best
Who knows where the Hornets would have been against Brooklyn (1-2) without their rookie.
Brandon Miller was nearly single-handedly responsible for keeping the Hornets within relative striking distance, topping his season scoring average in the first half and posting 16 points. His 22 points and nine rebounds off the bench were huge.
Miller displayed his defensive skills as well, causing back-to-back turnovers in the second quarter and showing off his length and peskiness. He also pinned Cam Thomas’ shot on the backboard seconds later, igniting a rare Charlotte fastbreak.
“I think the performance was great, but at the end of the day we lost,” Miller said. “I think we’ll just come in here (Tuesday), and get better and then go and try to get a win against a tough crowd and a great team (in Houston).”
It’s been a relatively smooth transition for the No. 2 pick so far.
Miller is averaging 17.3 points per game off the bench as the Hornets’ sixth man. By totaling 30 points connecting on five 3-pointers in his first two games, he became just the second player in franchise history to meet those thresholds in their first two career games.
The other? PJ Washington.
“Impressive,” Clifford said. “Actually the whole thing from the time after summer league since he’s gotten here — his attitude, the way he works. To play in this league, you’re talented, but he’s one of the few guys, even within guys in this league — Tracy McGrady was like this —- somebody would show him something and he could do it that night.
“They’re all talented. Brandon Miller, you show him something in the afternoon and he can do it tonight. He has a super high IQ and it comes easy to him. He sees what has to happen, whether it’s a technique thing on defense or you change something, and you don’t teach that. You don’t teach that, any of that. He learns quickly.”
And that’s not all.
“He doesn’t need a lot of reps,” Clifford said. “That’s another thing in this league, is the better players don’t have to do something day after day. They can do it. The younger players coming into the league don’t have the foundation they used to years ago. He does. He played in a great college program, and I think the fact his dad played football at Alabama probably helped.
“When you coach him, he understands that this is important. When somebody says, ‘Let’s do it this way,’ he does it that way. He’s got size, he has instincts, he’s tough and he likes to play. I don’t know how good he can be, but he’s super talented and he’s got the right attitude about him.”
LaMelo Ball’s struggles
An old issue cropped up for LaMelo Ball in the season’s third game.
In foul trouble all night, Ball had trouble staying on the court and logged the fewest minutes of any starter. He fouled out late in the fourth quarter and his sporadic action made it even more of a challenge to get into any sustained rhythm.
Still working himself back into form, the Hornets’ star point guard struggled to get it going, posting 10 points, eight assists and three rebounds. By misfiring on all four 3-point attempts, Ball failed to connect on a 3-pointer for the first time in 54 games, snapping the NBA’s third-longest active streak.
Ball is averaging 28 minutes a game and don’t expect that number to increase much too soon. Charlotte is playing it cautious with him as he ramps up his activity following his recovery from March 1 ankle surgery. After he fouled out, he took off his right shoe and was seen massaging and rotating his ankle.
“We are still trying to be careful,” Clifford said. “He’s only been cleared for contact for maybe a month now and Mark (Williams) is the same. They’re not 100%, but also it’s not like they’re 50%, either. They’re getting there but we want to be careful for sure.”