The Charlotte Hornets beat the Miami Heat in a thriller last night, 109-106. The game held tremendous playoff implications, including denying the Heat a tiebreaker and potentially sliding up three spots in the Eastern Conference standings. At no point did it seem like either team truly had the momentum necessary to break the game open. That was a gentle reminder that while the Hornets are very good, they're not a top-tier team yet.
But their improvement is noticeable. They've somehow transcended the injuries that kept them down early in the season and have strung together a fantastic stretch of games since the All-Star Break. They're 16-4 since Jan. 31, by the way.
So, what did we learn last night?
Albus Jefferson: Still good at basketball
I'll admit it: I was wrong about Al Jefferson. Back in January, I was convinced Al was destined for 15 minutes off the bench while posting averages of something like eight points and four rebounds per game.
Clearly, that's not the case. Sorry about that, Al.
Jefferson was incredible against the Heat, scoring in a multitude of ways against whatever defender Miami threw at him. There were fading hook shots, a few face-up jumpers, drop steps, offensive putbacks...really, the whole shebang. Jefferson finished the night with 21 points on 10-of-16 shooting and 10 rebounds in just over 26 minutes.
Check out his shot chart from last night's game.
If you wanna watch Al get his groove on like it's 2011, you can see his field goals here.
So here's the deal. Jefferson will always be able to score; his legs will go, but that soft touch around the rim will never leave him. Keep in mind, though, that while Jefferson's capable of games like this from time to time, this isn't the norm, and we shouldn't expect it to be the norm. He's still prone to defensive lapses, though head coach Steve Clifford's once again found a way to mitigate Jefferson's defensive shortcomings a bit with particular lineups and positioning strategies. In fact, Jefferson has the third-best defensive rating of any Hornet over the last 15 games, and strangely, the third-worst offensive rating as well.
He's going to be key to the Hornets' playoff success.
Marvin Williams, bringer of flames and glory
If you follow me on Twitter, you know I'm one of the biggest Marvin Williams stans out there. It's rivalling even my love for Bismack Biyombo (who finished with a career-high 16 points and 25 rebounds last night, by the way).
With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist out, Williams has blossomed into the consummate glue guy. He does the dirty work — defending, rebounding, and hustling for loose balls — and has grown into quite possibly the Hornets' best 3-point shooter. How good? He's shooting 45.3 percent from behind the arc over the Hornets' last 15 games. Keeping with that trend, Marvin drained four of his six 3-point attempts against the Heat, giving him 12 points for the game to go along with five rebounds and two steals.
But what really stuck out about Marvin's game last night was his defense, especially late in the game. When the Heat had a chance to cut the lead to a single possession with about 45 seconds left in the game, Marvin guided Luol Deng from the left corner to the middle of the floor and forced a tough hook shot, which Deng missed. Much has been made of Williams' hot shooting from deep, but he's been just as good, if not better, defending opposing forwards. And that's no easy task — one night, he's guarding a stretch four with ball-handling skills, and the next he'll be matched up with an old school bruiser. His ability to guard both styles has served the Hornets so, so well this season.
So, uh, the bench
Our own Doug Branson talked about it prior to last night's game — the Hornets' bench stinks right now. It wasn't any better against the Heat. Outside of Jefferson, the Hornets' bench combined for 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting, six rebounds, and two assists. Granted, Cliff decided to ride the starters to victory, and that was the right decision. But was it because he doesn't trust the bench right now, or because the starters were playing so well?
It's hard to say.
Still, there's no way around the fact that the bench unit that led the Hornets to many victories early in the season is struggling. Jeremy Lin's shot hasn't looked right for a few weeks now, and even his energy level seems to be down a bit. Frank Kaminsky hasn't hit the rookie wall, but his weaknesses are more apparent than ever. He can't protect the paint well, and he's prone to disappearing on offense for long periods of time. Jeremy Lamb's been so bad lately that Clifford's turned to Troy Daniels for outside shooting. Lamb didn't play a single minute against the Heat.
Thankfully, the Hornets' starters are on a tear these days. But what happens come playoff time when Clifford needs to look to his bench for game-to-game adjustments? If the bench doesn't figure it out soon, April could be rough. We're only 14 games from the end of the season.