At one point in the 3rd quarter, the Charlotte Hornets were up by 21 and in control over the Indiana Pacers. Then, as has happened too often this season, the lead evaporated, and the Hornets would let this one get away from them, losing 103-102 after George Hill hit a late game shot.
Before Hill's game winner, Marvin Williams knocked down a 3-pointer with 14 seconds remaining to put the Hornets up by one. On the next possession, Hill drove to the basket against Cody Zeller, dribbling under the basket and finding himself wide open after Zeller left him momentarily. It was a blown defensive play, and resembled Gerald Henderson's blown box out in the first matchup that lead to Soloman Hill's put back game winner.
There were positives to take from tonight (and I'll get to them soon), but this loss hurts, much like last night's road loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Both teams were beatable, but the Hornets were unable to continue the momentum built after beating the Washington Wizards in two straight games. I'm not sure why Zeller left Hill on the last play; it's possible he thought Hill was going to pass it off. Unfortunately, Hill did not, and found himself open to win the game.
Tonight's loss continued to reinforce a concerning trend -- the Hornets struggle to win without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. As our own Chris Barnewall points out, the Hornets do not fare well with MKG out of the lineup:
Hornets are now 3-12 in games this season without MKG— Chris Barnewall (@ChrisBarnewall) February 9, 2015
For long stretches tonight it looked like the Hornets would be able to overcome MKG's absence, but it was their play in the latter parts of the 3rd quarter, and for much of the 4th, where they were unable to get the needed stops. This is where MKG makes a difference.
However, this extends beyond making stops down the stretch. It's puzzling how this team suddenly cannot put four quarters together without MKG in the lineup. The Hornets 21 point lead tonight wasn't a mirage, they were playing tough defense, Al Jefferson was in prime form, and the Pacers were frustrated. Then, just as quickly as the Hornets built the 21 point lead, the Pacers brought it right back to 11, and from that point Indiana chipped away until they regained the lead.
The On/Off numbers confirm the obvious -- opponents have a much easier time scoring the ball with MKG off the court. When he plays, teams have an effective field goal percentage of 46.8 and an offensive rating of 96.8. When he's off the court, the effective field goal percentage rises to 49.9, and the offensive rating jumps all the way up to 107.2. The differences are staggering, but it still doesn't explain how this team goes from one of the best defensively, to unable to beat two lottery teams in the Eastern Conference because they are missing one player. A lot more could be said about this, but it appears that MKG may truly be a player that defies advanced stats and metrics in how he so dramatically impacts the way the rest of the team plays.
Now, some positives, because if Hill's shot doesn't go in we are talking about this game in a much different light. Jefferson had arguably his best game of the season, scoring 30 points on 13-22 shooting, and grabbing 13 rebounds. He was back to crafting his way at the hoop, getting every Pacer defender in the air on pump fakes, and spins, and everything else we love about Jefferson that he only does with his right hand. It was reminiscent of the game he had around this time last season against Indiana, the difference being the Hornets build a big lead and held it.
Brian Roberts was also very effective scoring the ball, finishing with 19 points on 8-14, and dishing out 5 assists. It was a nice bounce back game for Roberts after struggling last night against Philadelphia. Gerald Henderson struggled to score the ball, but still managed 13 points by converting all nine of his free throw attempts.
Jeff Taylor got the start in place of Kidd-Gilchrist, and scored six points off of two 3-pointers in 22 minutes. It was a solid outing for Taylor, who will have a good opportunity to show Charlotte (and the rest of the league) what he's still capable of. He hasn't played a lot since returning from the suspension, and with his contract expiring at the end of the season, this could be his last chance to show he still has value. If he could re-create some of the defensive intensity lost with MKG out (Clifford once called Taylor the team's best on-ball defender), he could become a valuable, and sorely needed piece.
C.J. Watson lead the Pacers in the scoring with 22 points off the bench, going 5-8 from the 3-point line. Luis Scola had 15 points and 14 rebounds as well off the bench, while David West and Rodney Stuckey lead the starters with 15 points a piece.
It was a chippy game for much of the night, with Henderson, West, and Pacers coach Frank Vogel each getting technical fouls. West and Lance Stephenson had a minor collision, and Cody Zeller took a blow to the head late in the fourth quarter on an inadvertent elbow by Soloman Hill. Combine all that with almost half a dozen illegal screen calls on both teams, and it was another reminder that both Charlotte and Indiana get after each other whenever they meet up. Fortunately, this game actually produced some scoring, unlike the previous two meetings this season. Unfortunately, the Hornets fell to 1-2 in the season series against Indiana, meaning the final matchup of the year is crucial, particularly if the Pacers remain in the playoff race.
The Hornets have tomorrow off, and face Detroit on Tuesday. Then comes the All-Star break, and hopefully those eleven days off allow this team to get healthy.