In their first game after the All-Star break the Hornets looked like a completely different team. A portion of that was the doing of Mo Williams making his first start in a Hornets uniform following the trade that brought him to Charlotte. The shorter M. Williams (both in stature and name length) was a sparkplug on offense, scoring 24 points on 8-17 shooting and dishing out a dozen dimes. It's a performance strong enough to overlook his five turnovers, especially since the Hornets finished with only nine giveaways, in one of the only facets of tonight's game that was consistent with what we've seen from the team all season.
Moreover, this team was playing way more run-n-gun than what we've come to expect. They were no Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns, but they had to be playing at a quick pace in order to score over a hundred points at an average .430 shooting mark from the floor-- or, at the very least, fast for the Hornets. Their thirteen points in transition might be a single-game high for the team this season. They made the three-point shot a priority too, attempting 24 from beyond the arc. Yes, only seven of them were successful (thanks to Mo Williams sinking five), but that's a lot more than you would have thought that they would even think about taking, due to their downright awful track record from that range.
Unfortunately, that's probably about where the compliments stop, short of mentioning a few strong individual contests-- Al Jefferson played very well, Cody Zeller was a huge contributor when on the court, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was so recovered from his injury that he had one of the best two-way games of his career, scoring a season-high 20. So yes, that was nice to see. What wasn't nice to see was the complete dissonance from the defensive principles that have led to the team's relative success over the past season and a half. Everyone knew that the injury to Bismack Biyombo would decimate the frontcourt defense, and Mo Williams has issues staying with younger, quicker perimeter players, but that doesn't excuse the players who have been in Charlotte for some time.
It's hard to single anyone out when the primary concern was a complete evisceration on the boards, leading to the Thunder grabbing 19 offensive rebounds, which helped them reach double digits in second-chance points during the first half alone. Even though both teams missed 53 field goals, the Thunder outrebounded the Hornets by 18, the result of a team that often looked lethargic. In fourteen minutes, Jason Maxiell, who was playing the center position, picked up more fouls (two) than rebounds (one). His four blocked shots didn't come close to making up for the frontcourt lapses between him ,and Marvin Williams, that resulted in the normally-offensively-challenged bench frontcourt of the Thunder to combine for sixteen points on nine field goal attempts. Again, Biyombo's injury destroys the Hornets' ability to maximize their defensive efficiency, but this problem was compounded both by the sluggishness of Maxiell and Williams (whether caused by a lack of effort or by neither of them being that young anymore), and by Steve Clifford's rotation keeping Zeller and Kidd-Gilchrist for long stretches of time when it appeared the team needed them on the floor the most.
Clifford's rotations are a topic of discussion that won't go away anytime soon, and while at times the criticism is overblown (yes, he has to play Lance Stephenson for 20 minutes a game; no, the 19-year-old rookie won't see much playing time), tonight he left even his most devoted defenders scratching their heads. Marvin Williams, he of the 1-5 mark from three and the difficulty fitting in to the defensive rotation, saw 28 minutes, while Zeller, who at this point has proven that he is the more capable player on both ends of the court, saw only 20. Kidd-Gilchrist sat out the entire second quarter, during which time the Thunder gained eleven points in the scoring margin (though, thankfully, the Hornets got back some points before halftime). I don't want to dwell on this too much, because this problem could have easily been avoided had the veteran players simply played better, but it is curious that the defensive-minded coach mostly abandons the strategies that have earned him the bulk of his wins when he finds his team losing late in the game.
Regardless, it was nice to see the team try to fight through adversity and make a quick comeback at the end, but it wasn't meant to be, as the shooters ran completely cold when they needed to be their sharpest, and it truly wasn't for any lack of effort during the final few minutes. The starting unit had no issues getting adjusted to their new starting point guard (who will presumably keep that role as long as Kemba Walker is injured), which bodes well for the near future. In a particularly unlucky schedule quirk, the Hornets have to travel out to face the Mavericks in Dallas tomorrow night, which won't be an easy task on a back-to-back, but we should see how they adjust to the fatigue with this current playable squad. If we're lucky, they'll be able to pick up one win in this two-game stretch.