Perley’s Press Pass: Hornets’ Defense ‘Turning the Corner,’ says Borrego

by Sam Perley

Ever since suffering one of their worst losses of the season almost two weeks ago – a 119-80 defeat in Indiana on Feb. 25 – the Charlotte Hornets have turned things around a bit and put together a rather impressive stretch of basketball. While the team’s record might just be 3-3 since this particular outing, that mark doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.

During this stretch, the Hornets sit seventh in the NBA in defensive rating (107.4) and 11th in net rating (1.8), rankings that stood at 26th (113.1) and 28th (-8.2), respectively, through the opening 57 outings. The offense is lagging behind just a bit (109.3 rating is 23rd in the NBA over these six games), but in order for this young team to be successful, it has to begin with defense.

“It’s important for our guys to understand that it starts on the defensive end for us,” said Coach Borrego on March 1 after the Hornets became the first team to hold Milwaukee to under 100 points since Feb. 2019. “We haven’t been where we needed to defensively for the last year and a half. We are turning the corner. I think a lot of it has to do with the personnel we have on the floor right now, with the length and the size, the athleticism and the way we’re building this thing is to compete with teams like we saw tonight.”

“After the Indiana game, it didn’t sit well with us, so we told ourselves that we were going to come out, play hard and give everybody our best efforts and that’s what we’ve been doing,” said Terry Rozier after a 108-99 home win over Houston on March 7. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can play hard, score the ball. We have just been having fun out there – that’s the most important thing. You don’t want to lose your fun out there.”

Two of the squad’s losses during this span have come at the buzzer and another came to Milwaukee by eight, a contest that was tied with about four minutes remaining. The Hornets have allowed just 11.5 second-chance points per game since Feb. 26, the eighth-lowest mark in the NBA (13.4 PPG beforehand). They also rank sixth in percentage of offensive loose balls recovered (55.8%), second in charges drawn (1.33) and 10th in contested two-point shots (35.5).

Most notably, the team’s play over the last two weeks has involved contributions from nearly every player in the rotation. Devonte’ Graham is averaging 20.6 PPG on 44.7% shooting (36.4% from three) and 5.2 APG in five outings since sitting out the Pacers game for resting purposes. Rozier is also putting up 20.0 PPG, while shooting 51.3% from distance and PJ Washington has tallied at least 19 points in three straight games for the first time this season.

Off the bench, Willy Hernangómez (7.8 PPG and 7.5 RPG) and Cody Martin (7.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 5.0 APG and 1.3 SPG) are also making significant contributions. Add in the lengthy, versatile Jalen McDaniels (5.8 PPG and 4.5 RPG in 12 GP since Feb. 8) and Caleb Martin (8.7 PPG on 56.3% shooting over his last 3 GP) and Charlotte’s certainly had quite a promising glance at its future core.

Borrego knows his team isn’t where it wants to be just yet. There will still be plenty of growing pains with bumps and bruises to follow over the final 19 outings of the campaign. But one of the greatest measures of success in the NBA is how a team gets better or worse over the course of a long season and at the moment, indisputable improvements have been made.

“I think we got better,” said Borrego, when asked about his biggest takeaway from the four-game homestand. “We talked about it and said let’s get better after these four games. I didn’t know if we were going to win one, two, three or four, but let’s go compete and let’s get better. We checked all those boxes. We competed every single night, had a shot to win every single game. Let’s keep it up. Let’s hit the road and keep defending.”

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