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Hopeful Thunder challenge revitalized Hornets

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The Hornets have won 4 straight, and manged to shut down both KD and Reggie Jackson last year. How much of this team is hot air?

"Somewhere out there, if love can see us through...then we'll be together, somewhere out there...out where sprained ankles...heal soon."
"Somewhere out there, if love can see us through...then we'll be together, somewhere out there...out where sprained ankles...heal soon."
William Bennett Berry

The Charlotte Hornets came into the season with a lot of hype, mainly because they're owned by Michael Jordan and changed their logo to have a strong connection to the 90s. Sure, others talk about Steve Clifford's great defense last year and the emergence of Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson as a couple of above-average starters. Others might even talk about the off-season acquisition of Lance Stephenson. But really, I'm not sure why people saw this Hornets team being a force in the East.

There were a lot of problems from the start. It's impossible to know whether Lance is really a locker room problem, but we do know that he played a role in one of the worst locker room collapses in this decade. Furthermore, the Hornets were trying to integrate a lot of young players (Cody Zeller, P.J. Hairston) and other new/relatively new acquisitions (Marvin Williams, Brian Roberts, Jason Maxiell, and Gary Neal). Even worse than that was the lack of true offensive talent on this team. Lance Stephenson has a game built for the ISO ball that was played in the 90s, not the motion offenses of today. Kemba Walker has talent, but his offense is nowhere near the levels of, say, the top 20 point guards in the NBA. And sure, Al Jefferson is the 20 and 10 guy that every team needs, but he's only the league's 25th best scorer. I'm well aware that I'm speaking in generalities and biting into big storylines here, but I think the signs of a potential Hornets struggle were there for all of us to see.

In any case, after a deplorable 6-19 start that involved a brutal 10 game losing streak, the Hornets have won 4 straight. The list of opponents isn't impressive, as they all boast losing records and include the hapless 76ers. But wins are wins, and Frank Berndt of At the Hive has a great Christmas article describing the reasons behind Charlotte's success. Basically, Lance's absence has helped, since he's a net negative on the team maybe 70% of the time. On the positive side, the Hornets have really benefitted from the health of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who brings a certain level of defensive intensity. Even Bismack Biyombo has been serviceable, finally beginning to learn how to mask the deficiencies in his game.

Looking through the other Hornet blogs of the net, you can find some other explanations of the run. One of my favorites is a little-known site called LamarMatic. It's run by a 20 year old Latvian who spends a ton of time analyzing plays. Some of his findings are really fascinating. Most recently, he's talked about some recent creative defensive strategy from coach Clifford that's worked, such as a zone defense against the Celtics and super aggressive defense against the Bulls. Lamar has also exposed some abominable fourth quarter defense from Al Jefferson, which makes me really want the Thunder to go small and let Ibaka run wild during that time.

Is that enough to make the Hornets competitive tonight? I certainly think so. The Bobcats shut Kevin Durant down once last year, limiting him to 8-24 shooting on March 2nd. Reggie Jackson also had a terrible game against the Cats, shooting 4 of 19 on December 27th, 2013. Still, Westbrook did show a dominant 10 of 12 performance against Walker, and KD did help carry the Thunder to victory in the fourth quarter of his bad shooting night.

Obviously, KD's status surrounds this game in a cloud of uncertainty. Should he be able to go, he'd greatly increase the Thunder's chances of winning. But without him, it's easy to see the Thunder having trouble moving the ball and finding scorers. We've seen the best of both worlds with this team at this point. Some games will have a couple of key players struggle on offense, while key weaknesses on our bench will be occasionally be exposed. The bench isn't much of a concern against the Hornets, but the Thunder will have to make sure that both Reggie and Russ are able to score at their regular clips. The Hornets might not look it, but they can play in some really high scoring contests as long as they're getting to the line or getting in the paint.

My suggestions for tonight? The Thunder need to switch on pick and rolls and not foul. The Spurs were picking OKC apart last night for doing that on the p and r (more analysis on that later), but I don't think Charlotte has the same quality of ball movement. Just stay in front of your man and don't pressure. The Hornets may not get a ton of assists, but they hold onto the ball extremely well, so playing for a lot of steals isn't in the Thunder's best interest. Just protect that rim, and we should be all good.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 107, Charlotte Hornets 103.

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2014-15 NBA Season Game 31
@
10-19
(Won 4)

14-16
(Won 1)
December 26th, 2014
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: National Basketball Association Television, Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, SportSouth
Injury Report: Kevin Durant (Questionable), Mitch McGary, Lance Stephenson (Out)
Last Season's Matchups: Dec 27th (W 89-95), Mar 2nd (W 116-99)
Probable Starters
Kemba Walker PG Russell Westbrook
Gerald Henderson SG Andre Roberson
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist SF Kevin Durant or Perry Jones III
Cody Zeller PF Serge Ibaka
Al Jefferson C Steven Adams