Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Cllifford has turned to reserve Marco Belinelli over starter Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to finish games of late.

At least in the short run, Charlotte Hornets small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is defining the difference between a starter and a closer.

Kidd-Gilchrist is a big part of this team’s plans, primarily for his wide-spectrum defensive prowess. But in the fourth quarter of a close game, Kidd-Gilchrist has all but disappeared from the rotation, in favor of veteran reserve Marco Belinelli.

The numbers tell this tale: Over the Hornets’ past five games (their record in that span is 3-2), Kidd-Gilchrist has totaled 3 ½ fourth-quarter minutes. Those minutes were in the road victory over the Dallas Mavericks, when Kidd-Gilchrist was guarding Harrison Barnes.

Over those same five games, Belinelli has played 52 ½ of a possible 60 fourth-quarter minutes. In fact, since the only time he sat fourth-quarter was the home blowout over the Orlando Magic, Belinelli has played every meaningful minute in the last five fourth quarters.

Ask coach Steve Clifford about this and he emphasizes no one in the franchise has lost faith in Kidd-Gilchrist’s offense. Clifford said this is mostly about how well Belinelli has played lately, after being acquired in trade from the Sacramento Kings in July.

There’s no question Belinelli has performed well. He has scored in double figures in nine of the Hornets’ past 12 games, including a team-high 14 points in Monday’s road loss to the Indiana Pacers. He entered the Pacers game 12th in the NBA in 3-point percentage at 44.6 percent for the season.

Belinelli’s long-range shooting is key to stretching defenses, opening space inside for drives and post-ups. The Hornets lost 3-point shooting when Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin left last summer in free-agency. Belinelli has filled that gap.

But this isn’t exclusively about Belinelli’s success. For all the work Kidd-Gilchrist has put in over the past few years, looking to fix his jump shot, he still is not a refined NBA shooter. Over those four games when he didn’t play in the fourth quarter, he has averaged six points and shot 8-of-26 from the field.

Clifford said Kidd-Gilchrist has earned the franchise’s patience, that he’s still regaining his rhythm after missing all but a handful of games last season because of two separate shoulder injuries that required surgery.

But Clifford also has said the Hornets won’t be a team with a set fourth-quarter rotation. There are variables involving matchups with opponents, or who has the hot hand that will affect who finishes games.

In a sense, this is a good problem. The Hornets’ bench has been more of a strength this season than anticipated and Belinelli has been central to that. Clifford said Belinelli is adjusting defensively, and that he has numerous strengths, such as moving without the ball, that improve the team.

But it’s also about the hard choices Clifford makes with a roster that isn’t so talented it can just overwhelm opponents.

Generally, Clifford prefers to put his best defensive team on the floor to start a game. In the fourth quarter, he morphs toward the best offensive group he can assemble without surrendering defense.

As Clifford described, if you’re in a tight game late against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are all on the floor, you need scorers to try to match them basket for basket.

Where does that leave Kidd-Gilchrist? He needs to create offense out of drives and put-backs and transition scoring. When the game slows to half-court pace, he must make an occasional jump shot to keep defenses honest.

Clifford says Kidd-Gilchrist will finish plenty of games this season.

But right now, that mix is still a work in progress.

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