During the pre-game broadcast of tonight's game, head coach Steve Clifford said the Charlotte Hornets played three good quarters of basketball during Monday's game against Cleveland. It's a statement that has been said more than once this season, and it was true once again in Wednesday's 111-106 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
The Hornets built a lead and held it for three and a half quarters. At one point, they lead by 17. It was unrealistic to think that lead would hold, but even as the lead shrunk, there remained a feeling that Charlotte would manage to hold it. The Hornets shot 41.7 percent from beyond the arc tonight. Al Jefferson finished with 28 points, with 18 coming in the first quarter alone. Kemba Walker had 27 points, seven assists, and no turnovers. Charlotte's best players had strong nights offensively (for most of the game), and the bench was knocking down three pointers. For a time, the Hornets performed like the team many were expecting this season.
Yet once again, the Hornets entered the fourth quarter with a lead, and lost it. The ball movement, which had been effective for much of the game, devolved into Walker dribbling around the perimeter and forcing up a shot as the shot clock ran out. In the last 2:05 of the game, Walker attempted five of the Hornets seven shots. Here they are, in list form (At this point in the game, the score is 104-103 Hornets):
- 2:05 - Kemba Walker misses 19-foot jumper.
- 1:24 - Kemba Walker misses 16-foot jumper.
- 0:51 - Al Jefferson makes 10-foot jumper (and this came only after a loose ball fell to him).
- 0:19 - Kemba Walker misses driving layup.
- 0:10 - Kemba Walker's 26-foot three point shot is blocked by P.J. Tucker.
- 0:05 - Gary Neal misses 26-foot three point shot.
- 0:02 - Kemba Walker misses 24-foot three point shot.
- 0:00 - Weep.
Walker's heroics throughout his career make it understandable why the team would put the ball in his hands late in the game, but for every game winner there has been a night like this where placing the ball in his hands has given the team little chance of winning.
What's more concerning, is that until late in the game, Walker's decision making had been pretty good. He'd picked his spots well and made a number of nice plays by creating space for himself and others. For what ever reason, that decision making disappears, as does the Hornets ability to score, and in most cases, the lead.
Clifford is going to get a lot of blame for this, and part of it should go to him, but ultimately it's on the players to execute, and Walker failed to multiple times. At one point, Suns switched off a pick-and-roll between Walker and Jefferson. Suns point guard Isaiah Thomas (listed at 5'9'' found himself on Jefferson), yet Jefferson made no attempt to post up, because at that point, it was clear Walker was not passing the ball.
The late game decision making has to be addressed. It's likely it has been more than once this season, but the players and coaches have to decide who is getting the ball, and how they are going to execute. Placing the game all on Walker's shoulders is not a good strategy, and it is unfair to Walker.
The Hornets drop to 6-19. It's their 4th loss in a row, and their 14th loss in the last 16 games. For Phoenix, the win keeps them alive for the 8th spot in the Western Conference. For the Hornets, the eight seed has just about slipped away.
- Jefferson and Walker were the only Hornets starters to score in double figures. Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Lance Stephenson combined for only 20 points.
- Brian Roberts and Gary Neal combined for 23 points off the bench, and made five 3-pointers between them. Good spacing and ball movement got them a number of open shots.
- Lance Stephenson left the game in the second half with a groin contusion. He would return, but the injury was obviously bothering him.