The Charlotte Hornets are in first place in the NBA’s Southeast Division and have been above the .500 mark all season.
Not good enough, coach Steve Clifford thinks. It’s time to take the next step.
“I’m looking for a jolt,” Clifford said Tuesday after the Hornets rallied to beat the Los Angeles Lakers 117-113 at Spectrum Center. “I’m looking for a push. I’m looking at these next two weeks where we play some good teams and we need to play better. We need to put 48 minutes together, two games together. Then we’ll see if we’re a good team or not.”
Clifford didn’t care for the first 24 minutes the Hornets (16-13) played against the Lakers (11-20), a team that was no doubt feeling the weariness that comes from being in the middle of a seven-game, 12-day road trip. Los Angeles jumped to a 73-59 lead by halftime, leading by as many 19 in the second quarter. The Lakers made 12-of-18 3-pointers in the first half (including five of seven by reserve guard Jordan Clarkson).
The Hornets didn’t get their go-ahead points until 13 seconds remained when Nic Batum banked in a shot from the right side.
If we keep playing like this, things won’t work out well for us. Kemba Walker
After allowing 41 of those points in the first quarter, the Hornets buckled down defensively, giving up just 40 in the entire second half.
Clifford didn’t put his fist through a chalkboard or anything like that at halftime. He calmly let his players know he expected more of them. When the Lakers got two easy baskets to start the second half, he quickly called a 30-second timeout.
“I was surprised because (Clifford) wasn’t mad, actually,” said Batum. “He just told us to wake up.”
Said guard Kemba Walker, who nearly had a triple-double with 28 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds: “We can’t afford to start out games like this. We have to be better. If we keep playing like this, things won’t work out well for us.”
What Clifford and Walker are hoping for, of course, is a return of Tuesday’s second-half intensity and – as Clifford puts it – “physicality” to carry over into Friday’s home game against the Chicago Bulls, two road games against Brooklyn and Orlando and on to a New Year’s Eve home game against the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Everyone was together,” said guard Marco Belinelli, whose two late 3-pointers erased a six-point Lakers lead. “Everybody was ready to help each other and we made big shots.”