The Charlotte Hornets lost to the Houston Rockets 102-95 last night in what was perhaps the ugliest game of the Hornets' young season. The Hornets shot 34.9 percent from the field, fouled the Rockets a season-high 27 times, and were out-rebounded 49-35 — very uncharacteristic for a team in the top-10 in defensive rebounding. Then again, when you shoot under 35 percent, chances are the opposing team is going to out-rebound you.
There are few positives to take from last night's game, and plenty of negatives. Let's hop into it.
Frank Kaminsky was the lone bright spot
Don't be fooled by the lacklustre box score: Kaminsky had the best all-around game of any Hornet last night. In just over 22 minutes, he scored just 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting (including 2-of-4 from deep), snagged five rebounds and even had a nice block against Terrence Jones in the second quarter. On a night when the whole team was struggling, it was great to see the rookie keeping his composure and making smart plays.
A weird tidbit from NBA.com's player tracking: Last night, Kaminsky ran faster than any Hornet not named Troy Daniels, with an average speed of 4.37 miles per hour. That's your seven-footer busting his ass to help the team win. Great game from Kaminsky.
Ban James Harden
I don't enjoy watching James Harden play basketball. I don't know how anyone could.
Harden drew 11 fouls on the Hornets last night and was rewarded with 19 free throws. It would be one thing if he was slashing to the rim and being hacked by Charlotte's big men, but the majority of the fouls Harden drew were the result of veteran savvy (or flopping, depending on how you look at it) with some help from the referees.
Harden has a reputation for being fouled — a lot — and we're at a point where I can no longer tell if Harden's simply one of the best foul-drawers the league's ever seen, or if his reputation precedes him, which invites referees to make questionable calls. I'm leaning toward the latter, though Harden is excellent at what he does. It's just not fun to watch. What the Philadelphia 76ers are off the court, the Rockets are on the court.
Perhaps Harden's most important fouls were drawn from Jeremy Lin. Lin committed two fouls on Harden before Lin had even played two minutes in the first quarter. Head coach Steve Clifford allowed Lin to stay in — the right move, as Kemba Walker needed rest after playing 85 minutes in the Hornets' last two games — but once Lin was called for a charge with a couple of minutes left in the first, he wasn't seen from again in the first half. That put tremendous pressure on Walker, and required Clifford to go a bit deeper into his bench than he'd have liked.
Harden is a good player, don't get me wrong. But there's nothing fun about watching him play basketball.
The enigma that is P.J. Hairston
So here's the deal: Hairston played 20 minutes against the Rockets with a line of seven points on 2-of-12 shooting, two rebounds, a steal, and three personal fouls. He wasn't good in the box score, and the good ol' eye test didn't think he was decent either. He was burned on several isolations, missed a few defensive rotations, and jacked up a couple of questionable 3-pointers. However, I was greeted with an interesting metric when I checked the player tracking from last night's game.
Hairston had the best defensive rating of any Hornet who played more than six minutes. Seriously.
See, Hairston plays extremely hard on the defensive end. He's not the quickest or smartest defender, but he doesn't give up on plays and can frequently be seen sprinting up the floor, head down, after opponents secure a defensive rebound. The results aren't there yet, though, as the players Hairston guards shoot 5.1 percentage points better against him than their season average.
In fairness, he's often tasked with guarding the team's best wing player. He guarded Harden last night, and has guarded DeMar DeRozan, Dwyane Wade, and Klay Thompson this month. Each of those players dropped big scoring totals on Hairston, but that's not for a lack of effort. A few days ago, Clifford made this remark about Hairston's cameo in the Hornets' starting lineup:
"He has the size and strength to guard primary scorers," Clifford said Thursday. "You have to have those guys. He is technically getting better. He’s bright. He’s been here now, so he knows what we’re doing."
And that's the truth. It's unfortunate that Hairston's effort hasn't seen much in the way of results yet, but he's definitely trying and making decent decisions on the defensive end. It's pretty cool to see his effort reflected in some advanced metrics for once.
What happens when no one can make shots?
Only three Hornets — Kaminsky, Lin, and Cody Zeller — shot better than 50 percent from the floor last night. And it's not like the they weren't getting open looks.
In fact, 58 of the Hornets' 82 field goal attempts were considered uncontested, meaning the nearest defender was 3.5 feet or more away from the shooter on the vast majority of the Hornets' shot attempts. Unfortunately, the Hornets converted on just 34.5 percent of their open looks. Oddly enough, they shot better on contested attempts.
Why did they shoot so poorly? Part of it was luck. Shots that would normally go down simply didn't. However, there were 60 fouls in last night's game. That prevented the Hornets from getting into a rhythm on offense.
And to their credit, the Rockets did an excellent job of protecting the basket, though that's not a difficult thing to do with Dwight Howard cleaning up any defensive lapses. The Hornets love to run guards under the rim on their set plays, but the Rockets forced them baseline last night, arms spread, preventing them from receiving a pass. The same thing prevented Walker and Lin from finding open players behind the arc as they probed beneath the basket. The Hornets scored just 28 points in the paint as a result.
With the paint closed off, the Hornets attempted a franchise-high 41 3-pointers. Unforunately, they only made 12 of them. More often than not, the ball movement was there and the shots they were taking were good ones. They just didn't go down.
And really, what can the Hornets do in that situation? Had Al Jefferson been available last night, perhaps the Hornets could have dumped the ball into the post and tried to draw fouls on Howard and other Rockets bigs. But without him, no Hornet was able to single-handedly carry the Hornets' offense. There's been talk about the Hornets not needing Jefferson, but last night was proof that his presence alone can dramatically improve the Hornets' offense in the right matchup.