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The Charlotte Hornets can’t defend in the clutch

The Charlotte Hornets can’t close out games. The defense is a huge part of that.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Charlotte Hornets sure are a mess. Entering Christmas they looked primed to be one of the top playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. Kemba Walker was arguably the best point guard in the conference, and the team was absolutely rolling. Then everything fell apart.

The Hornets have won one game in their last 13 and before this streak they were already struggling to play consistently good basketball. As if overnight, the Hornets have become a bad basketball team. Some of this can be loosely explained as a lack of depth that has been exposed by injuries, but there’s something more to this.

Charlotte isn’t just losing games by being outplayed or running into better teams. They’re frequently blowing leads and failing to closeout victories in situations that they can’t afford to do so. This has led to the Hornets very infrequently getting blown out, or outplayed for an entire game, but instead letting their opponent pull away from them in the end. Whether it’s the Philadelphia 76ers or the Houston Rockets, the Hornets will fail to do what’s needed in the clutch to win. The quality of their opponent hasn’t mattered. The Hornets are beating themselves.

After last night’s loss to the Detroit Pistons, the Hornets are currently scoring 105 points per 100 possessions, and giving up 104.6 per 100. That’s good enough for a middle of the road offense a top 10 defense. Comparing them to the rest of the NBA, Charlotte should obviously be winning more games than they are right now. There’s a lot of context out there that might help explain it, but one area sticks out more than the rest. The Hornets are awful in the clutch.

Clutch is a very loose term that’s hard to describe, so I will stick to the NBA stats site’s definition of it. I will also be using Charlotte’s fourth quarter numbers, because while there is missing context that quarter is usually considered the “clutch” quarter.

In the fourth quarter, Charlotte’s usually good defense jumps up to a 107.5 defensive rating. This probably has to do with the bench unit usually starting fourth quarters, but it points towards a not great trend for the Hornets. As the game gets closer, the Hornets usually stout defense falls apart.

According to the NBA stats site, 36 times the Hornets have been either ahead or behind by five points in the final five minutes of a game. Most Hornets fans would expect Charlotte to be one of the worst offensive teams in the league for this situation, but they actually rank in the upper half of the NBA in the clutch. It’s their defense that can’t match up. The Hornets give up 121.7 per 100 in those final five minutes. The Lakers and Nets are the only two teams that give up more points.

Somehow it gets worse in overtime. Charlotte has only played in three overtime games this season, but when they have it’s been a disaster in every sense of the word. Yes, the sample size is small but they’re only scoring 90.7 per 100 while giving up 130.1 per 100. This doesn’t really prove anything other than the Hornets have played extremely bad in overtime, but it adds weight to the idea that Charlotte fails in the clutch.

The Hornets are a flawed team without any easy fixes right now, but one way they could win more games is by closing teams out. Last night against the Detroit Pistons they once again failed in the clutch. Yes, they collapsed on the way there but all would have been forgiven if they had managed to pull out a win. Instead, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope took over and the lead was blown. The simple fact is, the Hornets defense has failed in the clutch time and time again this season. That more than anything else this season has gone against their identity.