Kemba Walker: Where would the Hornets be without him?
The Charlotte Hornets have not been successful lately in the win column, losers of six of their last eight games. At the end of the day, the losses may be what we remember but we should keep in mind how magnificent Kemba Walker has been of late, including last night.
Walker weathered the storm of a rough Charlotte first quarter and entered halftime with 19 first half points, shooting 7-of-15 from the floor. He finished with a game-high 32 points to go along with five assists, three steals and three rebounds.
Walker was responsible for three consecutive buckets in the second quarter and a killer fadeaway jumper to get the Hornets within two points of the Thunder in the third. Both stretches made the Hive come alive. He accomplished a new season-high with 11 free throw makes and 12 free throw attempts, fighting every possession to keep his team alive.
Saturday night, Walker moved in to seventh on Charlotte's franchise scoring list, passing David Wesley with 5,243 career points. Walker scored 30 points in a game for the fifth time this season, tying his career-high for 30+ point games in a season - it's January 3. It was his team leading 11th game of 20+ points this season.
With the vast array of injuries Charlotte has suffered from, the team is back to relying on Walker, who's doing more than he should have to. It's a flawed strategy, even when he is playing this well. Including last night's game, Walker is averaging 27.4 points per game over the last five outings, the highest scoring average among NBA point guards during that stretch.
He likely won't be an All-Star because the process is what it is but he at least should receive heavy consideration and more recognition for what he has done this season. At the very least, he could be in line for an Eastern Conference Player of the Week honor.
Another Elite Streak to Overcome?
Charlotte's struggles with Miami, especially LeBron James and the Heat's Big 3 era, have been well documented. With that streak over and done with, has another one emerged in the form of Kevin Durant, Russell Westrbook and the Oklahoma City Thunder?
The Hornets dropped their 10th straight game to OKC last night. The Thunder has now held Charlotte under 100 points in nine of their last 10 meetings. Charlotte fell to 4-14 when failing to reach 100 points this season. Durant scored 20 or more points for the 20th straight game in last night's win.
Charlotte's last win in the series came at home on March 17, 2010. I wasn't quite done with high school yet the last time they won and I am now almost two years removed from college. The Hornets will get their next shot at the Thunder on January 20.
Defense & Rebounding
The Hornets have lost three of their five games since the Christmas holidays. While injuries have piled up, heavily contributing to their current three game losing streak, Charlotte's defense and rebounding has been heavily criticized and rightly so.
Oklahoma City out-rebounded Charlotte 53-38 last night and Toronto held a 54-43 advantage the night before. The Thunder out-rebounded the Hornets 13-3 after the first quarter while Charlotte had grabbed just nine rebounds through 19 and a half minutes of game action. Second chance points came at crucial moments for Oklahoma City and Toronto on back-to-back nights. Those extra possessions often kept Charlotte from gaining momentum and ceasing their gains altogether. The offensive rebounds for their opponents have led to too many easy and open shots.
Charlotte has given up 109-104-122 on three of the last four nights, all losses (and don't look now, but Golden State is up next). Steve Clifford was most upset with the team's defense in last night's post-game press conference. The team is playing hard, there's no doubt about that, but that effort can only get you so far. You can't just hustle and expect to play good defense in this league, you have to combine it with technique and strategy. While Clifford absolutely has a strategy in place, his players are playing without much technique.
The Hornets' defense hasn't been very good since the holiday break and they won't win much until they start playing better on that end. They've played five games in eight days and start a west coast road trip on Monday. There's been a lot of playing and not much practicing, and that isn't changing. Clifford mentioned the team would likely start to do some defensive work in shootarounds. A healthy roster would help, but Clifford can get more out of them, even this group.