The Charlotte Hornets are 5-1, and off to their best start in franchise history. It’s a bit surprising to be honest, but it’s also exciting that they’ve been able to overcome early season injuries and grab wins when their offense hasn’t run smoothly. Still, despite their poor stretches of offense, they rank 13th in points per game, though it should be noted that Monday’s offensive blitzkrieg helped pull that up.
Defense has been where Charlotte has really excelled. They are currently 3rd in points allowed at 96.5 a game, and 3rd in defensive rating at 97.2. Clifford said they would have to strong defensively to win early in the season, and so far that’s been the case.
Strong defense has carried the Utah Jazz as well. They’re 5-3 entering tonight, 2-0 on on their current east coast road trip, and currently rank 2nd in points allowed, and 8th in defensive rating.
They’ve haven’t been stellar offensively, but they’re being lead by newly acquired point George Hill, who at least so far, looks to be a player reborn. Hill leads Utah in nearly every major offensive category, averaging 20.4 points per game after averaging just 12.1 points a season ago. He’s listed as questionable tonight after missing this morning’s shoot around with a thumb injury, so keep an eye on that.
The Jazz used this offseason to sign veterans to mix in with their rising young core. Joe Johnson has started six of the team’s eight games due to Gordon Hayward missing time with a fractured finger, and has provided a veteran presence at small forward. With Hayward back, he’ll be a tough matchup for the Hornets’ second unit. Boris Diaw was also brought in, but he’s only featured in three games due to injury.
These veterans give them depth, but Utah’s young core is dangerous. Hayward has scored 48 points in his first two games back, and Rodney Hood is averaging 17.5 points a game, shooting 47.6 percent from the 3-point line. Then there’s Rudy Gobert, who is one of the best defensive post players in the league, and leads the team in rebounds and blocks. While he isn’t a prolific post scorer, Zeller, Hawes, and Kaminsky could have trouble defending him due to his size and length.
The Hornets should look to contain Utah’s primary scorers, as aside from Johnson, none of their bench unit are particularly adept scorers. Tonight has the makings of a defensive battle, since both teams focus on that end of the court first. Another fast start from Charlotte would settle a lot of offensive concerns, though.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will start tonight despite a sore lower back. No word on minute limitations, but it could come down to simply how much pain he can tolerate. Roy Hibbert remains out, which is a shame given that he would’ve matched up well with Gobert. The Hornets ultimately should continue feeding the hot hand of Kemba Walker, who is averaging 24.3 points a game while shooting the ball highly efficiently. After all, the last time these two teams met, Walker finished with a career high 53 points.
Even if the game turns defensive and low scoring, these are two quality teams playing well at the moment. Utah will be one of the tougher opponents Charlotte has faced all season, and likely the strongest defensive team they’ve faced, so tonight could give us a better gauge at where the team is. Yes, they’re 5-1, but they haven’t had the hardest of schedules. Tonight marks the first of many games where things get tougher, so a win would continue to solidify the Hornets historic start as legitimate.