Steve Clifford criticized the Charlotte Hornets lack of focus after Wednesday's loss to the Sacramento Kings, explaining they couldn't afford to lose focus during any stretch of the game. Tonight, the Hornets almost let a lack of focus cost them again, but instead rallied in the second half to earn a 101-91 win over the Chicago Bulls.
To Chicago's credit, they couldn't miss for most of the first half, particularly from the 3-point line, shooting 11-14. However, the Hornets lacked focus on defense, giving Chicago too many open looks. On offense, the Hornets lacked ball movement, and settled for low-percentage shots. At the end of the 1st quarter, Chicago lead 35-19, and as the Bulls continued to make shots while the Hornets continued to look out of touch, it appeared the team was headed for a 0-3 home stand.
At one point, the Bulls led by 19, but about midway through the 2nd quarter Charlotte started to get into a groove. Maybe Clifford's words got through after he grilled them during a timeout, but the effort picked up, starting with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Hornets began crashing the glass hard, which created a number of second chance opportunities. Charlotte was able to cut the Bulls' lead to four, trailing 51-47, but Chicago used a late run to lead at the half 60-52.
In the 3rd quarter, the Hornets took their effort to another level. A 13-3 run put the Hornets up for the first time since early in the game, and their defense became relentless. MKG was assigned to guard Aaron Brooks, who had torched the Hornets for 14 points in the first half. MKG made an immediate impact, making it difficult for Brooks to get shots off and effectively pass the ball. The Hornets as a team however played one of their best quarters of defense in the 3rd, allowed the Bulls to score just 10 points.
In the fourth, the Hornets continued to extend their lead, at one point leading 95-77. The Bulls would make a late run, and cut the lead to eight, but the Hornets managed not to completely blow the game, and held on.
Where do we start offensively? At first, it appeared no Hornets player was up for a big offensive night, but by the end of the game seven players scored in double figures, led by 20 points and seven rebounds from Gerald Henderson. Mo Williams had a strong second half, finishing with 18 points on 6-15 shooting.
The stars of tonight were Bismack Biyombo and MKG. Biyombo finished with a double-double of 10 points, and 10 rebounds. He was 6-6 from the free throw line, and six of his 10 rebounds were on the offensive end. MKG finished with 13 points and seven rebounds, and while his jumpshot was off, he wrecked havoc on the both ends of the glass, and as already pointed out, his defense on Brooks was superb.
Special mention goes to Jason Maxiell, who finished with 10 points, and seven rebounds, including four offensive boards. Maxiell was a menace in the post, and got the majority of his rebounds by spiking the ball out to another Hornets player, something he's done much of the season. He frustrated Pau Gasol all night, and provided key minutes for the Hornets while Biyombo sat on the bench in foul trouble.
Kemba Walker flirted with a triple double off the bench, finishing with 10 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists. He played 28 minutes tonight, so its likely he could be back to his regular minutes and starting role sometime next week.
The Bulls were lead by 24 points from Brooks, 18 points and eight rebounds from Gasol, and 17 points from Tony Snell. Nikola Mirotic added 15 points and 9 rebounds off the bench.
The difference in effort between the first and second halves was striking. Where Charlotte seemed to be going through the motions for much of the first half, they came out of halftime a completely different team, playing strong defense and extending possessions on offense by grabbing offensive rebounds. The Hornets finished with 27 second chance points tonight, the most by the team this season, and out-rebounded the Bulls 55-36, an remarkable stat considering how good of a rebounding team the Bulls are.
The second half performance is how the Hornets need to play every night from this point if they are to remain in the playoff race, but they cannot continue to start games slow. A five game west coast road trip looms, and the Western Conference will not be kind.
Still, give credit to Charlotte for coming back. They could have completely checked out, but they regained focus, turned up the intensity on both ends, and beat one of the few teams in the upper half of the Eastern Conference that hasn't totally imploded.
Speaking of the playoff race, the Hornets are now back in 8th place after the Toronto Raptors beat the Miami Heat (thanks Toronto!). The Hornets get the weekend off, and play again on Monday against the Utah Jazz, who, despite their record, are playing really well of late, and are 8-2 in their last 10 games. Hopefully the two days off will allow Al Jefferson and Cody Zeller to heal up, and potentially play on Monday.