January is over, and the Charlotte Hornets barely survived, going 6-11. Injuries, combined with two west coast road trips (going 2-6) put the Hornets outside the top eight in the East. It would be a lot worse, except they still remain in striking distance of the playoff teams. From Matt Moore:
So Charlotte’s two back of the 8, four back of the four spot. Man this back half of the year for the East is going to be interesting.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) February 1, 2016
The most surprising part of this is how close they are to fourth place. Through all the Hornets setbacks, the Eastern Conference remained tight, which has left the door open for Charlotte to make a run back into the playoff picture. However, their next round of games before the All-Star break won't be easy. Again, fromMatt Moore:
Well, hey, the Hornets are two games back. Now they can carry this push home and… damn it. pic.twitter.com/LJsfonoKhL— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) February 1, 2016
If there's positive to take from this schedule, it's that four of the five games are at home, where the Hornets are 16-8 this season. Cleveland will be a terribly tough game -- the Bobcats/Hornets have never beaten Lebron James -- but the Miami and Washington games are winnable -- and Charlotte has been capable of beating Chicago in recent years. Nonetheless it's a tough schedule, but it's important the Hornets come away from this stretch with a winning record, because the second half of February starts with five straight games on the road, including trips to Cleveland, Atlanta, and Indiana. The good news -- the Hornets don't travel out west in February -- but a worse case scenario would be finishing February with a sub .500 record against many of the teams they are competing against for a playoff spot.
A healthy roster will help their chances, and the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has fans quickly remembering just how important he is. His 19 points, 12 rebounds, and three assists against the Los Angeles Lakers was remarkable given it was just his second game back. Add in his two made 3-point shots, and suddenly your eyes are popping out more than Eric Collins' did after his call of the season. Put aside that he didn't attempt a single 3-point shot last season, it was the first time he had ever made more than one in a game. From Chris Kroeger:
This is the first time in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's 197 career games played where he's made two or more three-pointers in the same game.— Chris Kroeger (@Kroeger) February 1, 2016
What's more, he had only made three 3-pointers in his career before last night. In other words, he nearly matched his career makes. MKG's form has improved since the last time he attempted a 3-pointer, but more so than anything, he looks much more confident shooting the ball. While remaining selective in the shots he takes, he appears to have a belief in his jumpshot that wasn't there even last season, as evident from the two 3-pointers he made.
And while we love this new offensive juggernaut, it's important to remember that his biggest value will come on the defensive side of things, specifically, how he can frustrate opposing players. As Zach Harper points out, MKG is great at adjusting to players and a team's offense, which makes it more difficult for them to score in the later parts of the game:
He just wears you down as a defender, adjusts to what you and your team are doing, and then locks in the rest of the game. First quarter, opponents shot 2.7 percent better against him. That drops to 0.6 percent better than normal in the second quarter. By the third quarter, opponents are shooting 2.8 percent worse against MKG and that drops down to 3.1 percent worse in the fourth quarter.
The interesting part of this (and yes, it's only been two games) is that MKG has locked down opposing players from the start. Last night, Kobe Bryant started 0-3 from the field being guarded by MKG (most of his points came in the second quarter while MKG was out) while during Friday's loss to the Trailblazers, C.J. McCollum started 0-6 against MKG. It's no coincidence that the Hornets have started games better since Kidd-Gilchrist has returned. If an opposing team's best scorer can be limited in the first quarter, it gives the Hornets the chance to build an early lead, and put themselves in a better position to win.
Finally, the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell profiled the relationship between Hornets' head coach Steve Clifford, and Carolina Panthers' head coach Ron Rivera. The two became acquainted courtside at TWC Arena, where Rivera and his wife Stephanie would watch Hornets games. After exchanging numbers, the two would text and call to offer encouragement and support. Most recently however, Clifford sought out Rivera for advice after the Hornets had lost their seventh straight, seeking a way to re-tool a defense that was allowing 106 points per game in the seven losses. The problem for Clifford was finding a way to do that in practice without further exhausting the players. Rivera's solution -- teach the basics at an individual level:
Rivera grasped the problem and suggested an alternative: Break the team up into small groups and work very specifically on the skills and strategy that had eroded.
So Clifford tried more 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 drills with very specific goals.
"He suggested doing it in shorter periods, but in a way that would get their habits back," Clifford recalled.
So after two days of practice, the Hornets had a home game against the Atlanta Hawks, a team that had dominated them for years. The Hornets won by 23, holding the Hawks to 84 points.
Rivera isn't a basketball mind, but had picked up enough from his wife Stephanie, who played college ball and coached as an assistant in the WNBA. Her role was vital in teaching Ron aspects of the sport. And for a game at least, the advice worked.