Before the game on Saturday night, Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller was ruled out due to shoulder soreness. It came as a surprise to those of us who watched him dominate the court on Friday night against Dwight Howard and the Atlanta Hawks. In the end, the loss of Zeller in the paint, on offense, and on defense would affect the game on Saturday night in more ways than one.
INJURY REPORT: @hornets HC Steve Clifford says Cody Zeller (R shoulder soreness) listed as QUESTIONABLE will not be available to play.— Charlotte Hornets PR (@HornetsPR) November 19, 2016
Obviously, losing your starting center for a game against Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans is going to hurt. Even with Roy Hibbert coming back and playing limited minutes on Saturday night, weakness in the paint is fatal against the Pelicans and Davis, and he proved that, going off for 38 points and 16 rebounds in 42 minutes.
But “being unable to stop Anthony Davis” isn’t an excuse, or the Pelicans wouldn’t be 4-10. No one in the league can stop the Unibrow, and it’s likely he still would’ve put up big numbers with Zeller in there.
So how did the loss of Cody Zeller really hurt?
It took away a key component of the Hornets’ offensive gameplan.
See, Cody Zeller has been the reliable presence inside through the first dozen games of the season, the “most efficient scorer in the NBA.”
As Daniel Coughlin pointed out after the win on Friday night, Zeller went 5/5 in the first quarter, and all from inside the paint, on the way to his 23 point performance.
So without Zeller inside, the Hornets went full-bore on the thing they do best: 3-point shooting. This worked for a long time: Marco Belinelli had his best game yet in purple and teal, going 7 for 9 from behind the arc and finishing with 22 points.
And that led to a decent lead after three quarters. The Hornets were up 14 points a minute into the 4th quarter while the shots were dropping. But eventually, the percentages work themselves out, and those 3-balls don’t go in. The Hornets missed 5 3-point shots in the 4th...
...and the Pelicans started making theirs. Langston Galloway lit up the Hornets, sinking five 3-pointers of his own just in the 4th quarter. He’d add 3 free throws after being fouled while looking for his 6th of the quarter with 2 minutes to play.
Hornets drop a tough one in NOLA 121-116. Kemba 25-7-5. Marco 22-10-5. But it was Galloway's 6 threes that put CHA in a bad spot.— Locked On Hornets (@LockedOnHornets) November 20, 2016
Galloway ended up with 23 points on the night, one more than Belinelli. His 3-pointers were the difference.
So, how is that related to Cody Zeller’s injury? Well, not directly of course; Zeller wouldn’t have guarded the 3-point shooting SG. But losing Zeller’s consistency inside threw the Hornets’ defensive rhythm off and took a chunk out of their offensive playbook as well. He has been a key cog in the Hornets machine, a machine that, as Jonathan Tjarks wrote for The Ringer, is sitting on a “precarious balance.”
Without Zeller, the team’s defense in transition was atrocious. They didn’t close out on 3-point shooters, letting Galloway get away with too much. They couldn’t defend the indefensible Davis inside, of course. And, in the end, they couldn’t close out the 3-10 team from New Orleans, who picked up their 4th win of the season.
While our 3-pointers dropped, that sloppy defense didn’t matter.
When they stopped falling, it really did.
Come back soon, Cody: we need you.