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Hey, Hornets — a little defense tends to pay off

Brilliant defense from Roy Hibbert snagged the Hornets a win against the Thunder Wednesday night. Why don’t we see that more often?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of the third quarter, the Charlotte Hornets found themselves down to the Oklahoma City Thunder, 88-87. The Hornets have spent much of this season dominating third quarters — they’re fourth in the league in third quarter scoring — but a relatively underwhelming period made it clear the Hornets would need a strong showing in the final quarter if they were to pull out a win.

The Thunder shot 48.6 percent from the field and amassed just 10 turnovers in the first three quarters. In contrast, the Hornets shot a respectable 47.5 percent from the field over that stretch. If the Hornets were going to get a win, it would need to stem from their defense.

And that it did.

The Thunder made just three of their 10 shot attempts in the final period and tallied four turnovers. With defense like that, the Hornets didn’t need a huge scoring quarter (though they got one anyway). They held the Thunder to just 24 points in the fourth quarter and won, 123-112.

It’s no secret the Hornets’ defense has slipped over the last few weeks. The team’s defense is in the bottom half of the league over their last 10 games — 19th, to be exact — and because it’s a complex, multifaceted issue, no one quite knew where to direct their anger.

The easiest targets were indeed Roy Hibbert and Frank Kaminsky, whom have the two lowest defensive ratings of any players in the regular rotation. As far as Kaminsky goes, well, there isn’t much to say. He’s never been a good defender and will likely top out as “serviceable” in a couple of years. He’s just not built for that end of the floor.

Hibbert, on the other hand, is a much more interesting situation. The Hornets brought him in to solidify their interior defense, and thus far he’s proven to be a mixed bag in that department. There are times Hibbert is engaged, active, and aggressive. But there are also times — and they’re far more frequent — when he’s passive and easily shaken.

It’s become a bit of a gag that Kemba Walker tends to finish games with more rebounds than Hibbert does.

That was the case through the first three quarters. Steven Adams quite literally abused Hibbert, dropping elbows into his chest and moving him around with ease. Adams is a very strong, good player. That is true. But Hibbert should be able to hold his ground inside, and even if he can’t, he needs to figure out how to better use his length when he’s out of position.

Adams finished the third quarter with 18 points on 8-of-9 shooting, the majority of those shots coming against Hibbert on duck-ins and quick post-ups.

But in the fourth quarter, we saw the other Hibbert. His knees were bent, and on several occasions he committed early to a defensive assignment and outright shut his opponent down. He even had a particularly nasty block on Russell Westbrook late in the fourth.

He can do that. And when he does, good things happen for the Hornets.

With Cody Zeller inching ever closer to his return, Hibbert’s role should slowly diminish once again. After all, Zeller’s proven to be an excellent defensive player and a passable at worst player on offense.

He actually leads all rotation players in defensive rating and there’s a 12.5-point swing when he’s on the court versus off it. He’s that good.

And that’s nothing against Hibbert — I, like most fans, like to see the best players play. If Hibbert can start stringing together better defensive stretches then there’s no issue with him cutting into Zeller’s minutes, or even overtaking him in the rotation.

The problem is that Spencer Hawes is playing better defense than Hibbert on most nights. So clearly, Hibbert has a long way to go.

Hopefully he can figure it out, because last night’s game couldn’t have been won without him.

You can listen to Locked On Hornets for more about last night’s game: