Charlotte Hornets, 20-20 at L.A. Clippers 26-16
Saturday March 20th 10pm EST, Staples Center
The Charlotte Hornets are smack dab in the middle of another tough west coast swing. They came out of the last trip a respectable .500 on their way to 4 game winning streak. However, that west coast trip included teams such as Phoenix, Sacramento, and Minnesota. As Beyonce’s husband once said, “Everything was all good just a week ago.” Now they are facing the likes of the Denver Nuggets, who trounced the Hornets by 20+, and the second place Lakers who look like a juggernaut even without the best center in the league (I hear you Philly, don’t impede Embiid).
After facing the fifth and second ranked teams in the West, they stay in the Staples center to face the LA Clippers who are fourth. Nuggets, Lakers, Clippers these are all teams vying for the championship this year. None of these teams are hoping for growth or are looking for draft capital. They want to win and they want to win now. They expect to win games against teams such as the Hornets. Jokic dropped a triple double as the Nuggets made the Hornets look like a pick-up squad. LaMelo put in a 26-point effort that was all for naught as even a late game push never put the game in doubt.
Because there is some weird Los Angeles co-op still happening between two of the most valuable franchises in the league, The Hornets play their second consecutive game in the Staples Center against the Clippers. The Clips are coming home from a short gulf coast trip where they traded games with the Dallas Mavericks and dropped an L in NOLA. They Have been without Patrick Beverly and Kawhi whisperer Serge Ibaka. Beverly (my old friend!) is out for this game, but as of this writing, Ibaka is still questionable.
The Ibaka absence is key, not only because of his 11 points, 7 rebounds per game, but because he seems to be able to engage superstar Kawhi Leonard in games where he might otherwise be going through the motions. Don’t get it twisted, even a disengaged Kawhi can serve you a 20-7-7 box score. But a determined, focused Kawhi is like a Denzel Washington train movie, unstoppable. There’s no one who can contest his shot and no one who can escape his claws.
If the Hornets have a chance against this contender they have to hit open threes within the offense. The Clippers average 114 ppg, 10th in the NBA, so it is possible to simply outscore them. Unless the Charlotte defense got superpowers on Friday the Hornets have to hope to outperform the Clips on the offensive end. Charlotte has allowed 48% shooting by opponents this season and 54% in the past three games which is good for worst in the league.
It should come as no surprise that the guard play will be the lynchpin of victory as the Hornets front court is still sorely lacking. Watch for fizzing passes as Coach James Borrego tries to stretch out the LA clippers to find space for 3-pt opportunities. Devonte’ Graham, in his 6th game back from injury, played 22 minutes against the Lakers and is starting to get into the groove coming off the bench. LaMelo Ball has found ways to fill up the box score even in losing efforts, but the kick-outs and Pick-and-rolls cannot come at the end of the play clock if they are to contribute to winning. The vanguard of the offense is Terry Rozier. Expect Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to be stalking him throughout the game in order to prevent a Terry Takeover.
Cody Zeller, the 7-footer who doesn’t have a high enough vertical to get a clean dunk, is day-to-day with an injury and is perpetually questionable for this and every game. Gordon Hayward should be the grease that keeps the offensive gears turning, but expect him to be overwhelmed by his defensive assignments. If the Clippers are sans Serge then it will be interesting to see if PJ can take advantage of lesser athletes in the paint. And, isn’t Miles Bridges due for another dunk clinic?
If things get out of hand, and they might, watch for how the team reacts. Does the bench still encourage the players on the court? Does the tenacity decrease or increase when things start to fall apart? Those are lessons that can be applied to the playoffs. When the chips are down, three thousand miles from home, will the hornets disperse or swarm?