On December 11th, the Charlotte Hornets went into Memphis — The Grindhouse — and defeated the Grizzlies by 24 points; the victory made them 14-8 and, temporarily, second place in the Eastern Conference. Life was good: the Hornets were top-10 in offense, defense, and three-point shooting; they were also playing a faster-than-ever pace under Steve Clifford, and despite injuries to key guys, they were winning. Sweet, wonderful, beautiful winning. Could this team actually snag one of the top-four seeds, and host a first round playoff series? Well, probably not, but it was fun to entertain these hypotheticals, especially as the team was playing a fun style of ball led by two borderline all-stars: Kemba Walker and Nic Batum.
Fast forward five weeks, however, and we’re now living in a completely different reality. Al Jefferson has played just 478 minutes this year; Jeremy Lin and Jeremy Lamb have both cooled after hot starts; Batum has missed just five games this season, but it’s felt like way more — probably because Charlotte is just 1-4 in those contests. The team now sits at 19-23 — good for 12th place in the East.
It was entertaining as hell to see Kemba — who’s having a spectacular season — go for a franchise-record 52 points in a win over Utah on Monday, but that joy was short-lived — a trip to play the Thunder in OKC can do that, which is just what the schedule dumped on the Hornets Wednesday night.
This game was never in doubt for Billy Donovan’s squad. There were only two lead changes in the entire contest, and when the Hornets led, it was briefly, and for only one point. Durant sank a 17-foot jumper with 10:45 left in the opening quarter, which made the score 3-2 in their advantage; that was the game-winning shot — Oklahoma City never looked back.
Walker scored 10 points in the first quarter, but Durant had 15 of his own and Westbrook dropped six assists in the first 12 minutes. This was only a seven-point game at halftime, because the Hornets were fighting their asses off (it didn’t hurt that KD wasn’t exactly shooting the lights out, too), but it really didn’t matter. This game was never really THAT close.
Defensively, Clifford matched Kemba with Westbrook, P.J. Hairston on Durant, and Batum on Andre Roberson — a complete non-factor on offense. I was hoping to see him shuffle the deck a bit, and stick Batum on Durant (a good match-up size-wise), P.J. on Westbrook, and let Kemba basically have a night off guarding Roberson. This, however, didn’t happen. I can understand the rationale of wanting Kemba on Westbrook. He’s Charlotte’s fastest player and you want someone who can stay in front of the alien that is Russell Westbrook, but the size and strength disparity between those two players is tough to overcome — no matter how much of a badass Kemba is.
Look at this man. It’s like Westbrook found this in the back of Andre 3000’s closet; it’s glorious. I love the NBA, and one of the reasons is because a guy who dresses like this can step on the floor and immediately turn into the most unstoppable force on Earth. Charlotte learned that valuable lesson again last night.
In the third quarter, the Hornets finally started getting to the free throw line: they shot 9-10 from the stripe in that frame after attempting only five free throws before halftime. But none of it mattered. Westbrook took over; he scored ten points and handed out four assists: two of which resulted in slams for ACC legend and crazed person Steven Adams, who played well, too: 10 points, 10 rebounds.
Per NBA.com, the Thunder scored 1.18 points per possession with Westbrook on the court last night; the All-NBA guard used 31 percent of OKC’s possessions with him on the floor, too. They also played at a breakneck pace 106.8 possessions per 48 minutes, which would rank No. 1 in the league. This dude is that rare combination of heavy usage and high efficiency. It’s just amazing to witness. He finished just three assists shy of a career-high in that category, and that’s after he sat the entire fourth quarter, Steph Curry style.
Kyle Singler, who has been almost unplayable for large chunks of this season, decided to finally find his rhythm last night. You could even call his performance…amazing. Singler scored a season-high 11 points (his first double-digit scoring performance of the season, which, yuck), and connected on all three of his shots from beyond the arc (also a season-high).
Westbrook and Durant are intergalactic hoopers, who can score in all ten dimensions against all kinds of defenses. According to NBA.com’s player tracking, those two shot a combined 13-22 on contested shots last night (59 percent). So when guys like Singler and Adams are scoring — and Serge Ibaka is running around causing havoc at the rim — these guys are almost impossible to stop for anyone not named Golden State or San Antonio. It didn’t help that Charlotte got a rough game from Batum, who didn’t record a single point, and turned the ball over three times. The Hornets were -12 with the Frenchman on the court.
OKC has now won 21 of their last 25 games; the Hornets were just a number on a list, sadly.
It wasn’t all negative for Charlotte, though: rookie big man Frank Kaminsky continued his strong play. Frank splashed two threes, posted 15 points, and distributed four assists. This type of performance has become the norm for Kaminsky since the calender flipped to 2016. In his last 11 games, the rookie is averaging 10.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.8 assists; he’s also shooting better than 36 percent from deep. The defense still needs work — in this span of time, Charlotte is giving up 105 points per 100 possessions — but it’s promising to see the individual uptick on offense. He was aggressive last night, too, including one play where he exploited a match-up against Singler — taking him into the post and scoring, smoothly.
The Hornets will look to rebound (basketball pun!) Friday night at Orlando, when they take on the Magic — a team currently in the midst of a four-game losing streak — in the first night of a back-to-back. They’ll return home Saturday to take on Melo and the Knicks.