Before the game I mentioned that since Al Jefferson's absence, the Hornets had two losses and one win.
In three games since Al's absence, the two losses Kemba scored 10 and 12 points on 32% combined shooting. In the win 30 pts on 47%. He's key— At The Hive (@At_The_Hive) January 6, 2015
In addition, I said that Kemba Walker was key for the Hornets winning. Well tonight he was again stellar (33 points on 46 percent shooting) and mixed up his play all night against some truly great defenders (shout out to Phil Pressey).
Despite the great individual play of Walker, this was a quality team win for the Charlotte Hornets. Defensively, outside of Gary Neal, the team was an absolute force. Offensively, early before the Boston Celtics started to really pressure the Hornets defensively, Charlotte did a great job of moving the ball around. Everyone was getting touches and Gerald Henderson provided some much needed secondary pick-and-roll action that really opened up things for Cody Zeller.
Speaking of Zeller, he battled his brother Tyler Zeller tonight for the sixth time in his NBA career. He's now 6-0 against his older brother and tonight will surely be one he brags about for a long time. He finished the game 8-for-8 from the field, 4-for-4 from the free-throw line for a career high 20 points plus 7 rebounds in 33 minutes of playing time. In addition he played solid defense on his brother, Jared Sullinger, and Kelly Olynyk.
Again though, the most important factor of this game was Charlotte's defense. The Hornets held the Celtics eight points below their season average and it would have been more if not for some crazy scoring by Boston rookie James Young, who scored 13 points in just 17 minutes on a number of tough jumpers. Bismack Biyombo deserves a lot of the early credit as the Celtics seemingly didn't attempt a shot inside the paint for long stretches. However, it was a team effort and good game planning that really made the difference.
In particular, the Hornets did a really good job of keeping Jeff Green, Sullinger, and Olynyk off of the three point-line as the three only combined for four total attempts from distance. In addition, the defense was doubling down on Boston's big men anytime they received the ball down low, while also rotating back to their respective assignments. Finally, the pick-and-roll defense was air tight all night long. The only action Boston could generate out of the pick-and-roll was an elbow jumper for the ball handler and those were heavily contested or being taken by mediocre shooters (basically shots they wanted Boston to take).
So going into the fourth quarter, the score was 79-62 and then "it" happened. "It" being not the scary clown from the Stephen King movie but that feeling of dread that starts to creep into every fan's mind. Could the Hornets blow another lead? With Brian Roberts, Gary Neal, P.J. Hairston, Marvin Williams, and Jason Maxiell in the game, things started slipping. Gary Neal (who shot 2-for-12) had another turnover that lead directly to a fastbreak and then got torched by Jae Crowder on the other end. He was pulled quickly for Gerald Henderson. Then, leading by 14 with 8:06 remaining, Clifford put the starters back into the game, basically deciding to play defense down the stretch. It didn't work.
Despite the logic behind the decision, going with his best defensive lineup down the stretch backfired on Steve Clifford. With Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, and Bismack Biyombo in the game for Charlotte, the Celtics went on a 5-2 run, which then extended to 10-2 once Neal replaced Kidd-Gilchrist. The score was 88-82, the TD Garden was rocking, and there was 5:27 remaining for Boston to complete the comeback and then some. However, it wasn't meant to be as the Hornets made enough plays down the stretch to win it. That being said, a big red flag showed itself during the closing minutes of this game.
Right now, the team has no secondary ball handler they can realistically use during crunch time. Brian Roberts is too much of a defensive liability and is too easily trapped. Gary Neal can be error prone when pressured and struggles to keep his handle in tight spots. Gerald Henderson is more driver than ball handler (same with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist). This issue puts a ton of pressure on Kemba Walker and makes it extremely easy for teams to force Charlotte into bad spots. The Celtics made life extremely hard for Charlotte for the last three minutes of the game. It is times like these when having a guy like
Gordon Hayward Lance Stephenson would be beneficial. Gerald Henderson is looking better and better as a secondary ball handler in certain situations, but late when the pressure is ramped up, one of Stephenson's greatest strengths (his handle) would be a welcome addition.
The Hornets move to 2-2 since Al Jefferson's injury and have another "winnable" one coming up Wednesday at home versus the New Orleans Pelicans. Hopefully they can continue defending their new streak.