Don't let anyone else convince you otherwise; playing one of the best teams in the NBA this closely, especially on the road, is something to be very optimistic about for the rest of the season. The Hornets didn't shoot well, turned the ball over a little too often, and once again had very low-quality ball movement. And they still took the Memphis Grizzlies, the team with the second-best record in the entire league, to double overtime, before finally falling by a score of 113-107.
With that information, taking Memphis to double OT in their arena sounds like a tough accomplishment, and it absolutely was. The Hornets found themselves on the receiving end of a few lucky bounces at a few perfect times, the prime example being Gerald Henderson's finger-roll tip-in over a Memphis defender at the buzzer (and that's probably underselling the degree of difficulty that play required) to send the game into overtime. Once there, Henderson continued to make plays at the right moments, hitting a few shots late in the game that extended the interval at which the Hornets would be competitive. Other big contributors included Kemba Walker, who was on fire in the first half, going 4-6 from three in regulation and finishing with 28 points; Gary Neal, who came off the bench to drop 25 behind his tendency to draw fouls and his ability to hit a few jumpers that he really should not have even taken; and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who thoroughly impressed me with his play on all ends of the court. While I'll get to some of the issues with lineups and playing time later, I should state in advance that I believe there is no reason for Kidd-Gilchrist to be rushed back into action, and if he is not ready to play his typical minutes, then he should be resting.
Of course, this game was a loss, and although it was a moral victory, that is truly just a trumped-up term for close losses. Because of this, the flaws in the Hornets' play tonight were far more apparent than their strengths, even if I do think that the encouraging parts of tonight's game are just as relevant. Nonetheless, there was a big issue with shot selection late in the game, particularly in the fourth quarter. Despite the efficient play of Walker and Neal in regulation, the team still finished with a .418 field goal percentage, which won't win any games for you. Walker, in particular, has struggled with making smart decisions all year; Henderson's buzzer-beating follow-up only happened because Walker took an off-balance, contested jump shot from the top of the arc. It's not a high-percentage shot even if it's taken by one of the top outside scorers. It's a very low-percentage shot when taken by a below-average three-point shooter. He wasn't the only one who struggled, though, as Al Jefferson was stymied by the defense of Marc Gasol, finishing 7-21 from the floor. In his defense, just about everybody struggles to score when guarded by the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, so I'm not terribly worried about Jefferson moving forward, but his performance was a hindrance to the team tonight.
And yes, most of the team was settling for difficult shots in the fourth quarter and overtimes. I can't know for sure, but I'm pretty confident in saying that a lot of that was caused by tiredness and low energy levels; after all, nobody expects to play (essentially) an extra quarter at the end of a hard-fought game. But the problems with this are twofold: One is that the Hornets aren't a team that can expect to make a sufficient amount of their contested jumpers. The other is that very little was done to change the team from that path.
I'm not ready to fully criticize most of Steve Clifford's decisions, but the choice to sit Lance Stephenson for the last twenty or so minutes of the game was pretty puzzling. It didn't even have to be Stephenson, in case Clifford had a definite reason for sitting him out; other players were also benched in favor of tired starters who weren't nearly as well-suited for the specific situation on the floor. On the second-last possession of regulation, the Grizzlies had the ball and needed a basket. With two timeouts, the Hornets would have had enough time to get their offensive personnel in for their next possession. Instead, Clifford leaves Jefferson in the game instead of substituting in Bismack Biyombo (and despite the myriad criticisms of Biyombo, I think we can all agree that he is a considerably better defensive option than Jefferson). Gasol rolled away from a screen, broke completely free from Jefferson, and put Memphis up by two. It happened elsewhere: Marvin Williams left to fend for himself against Zach Randolph, a matchup completely favorable to the opposition, while Cody Zeller, who was very impressive on defense tonight, sat on the bench. Although I'm willing to give Clifford the benefit of the doubt when it comes to Kidd-Gilchrist and his injury, Clifford has often before sat his best defensive player while the Hornets struggled to hold onto the lead. The late-game lineups have become a worrying issue, and one that won't stop overnight.
This sounds overly negative for a game that I really am left optimistic by; the Hornets did not play especially well and still nearly won the game. But, like with many of their losses, it seems that if it wasn't for the prevalence of a few weaknesses that could be worked on, they could have had a much better shot at winning the game. It's been a frustrating season so far for everyone involved in Charlotte basketball, and tonight's match was no different, but there's finally some reason to believe that the Hornets might be turning a corner soon.