Perley’s Press Pass: Hornets Playing with Poise in Clutch Time

by Sam Perley

Over the past three seasons, the Charlotte Hornets have struggled to consistently put away games in the clutch. This year though, things have noticeably been trending upwards for the better, despite the relatively small sample size thus far.

For reference, clutch games are ones where the two teams are separated by five-or-fewer points entering the final five minutes of the contest. Charlotte is currently 5-3 in such matchups, tied with the L.A. Clippers for the eighth-best winning percentage in the league (.625). Over half the Hornets’ outings this season have qualified for clutch-time status.

“We’ve been practicing situational execution in practice and it goes back to last season,” said Head Coach James Borrego. “Somewhere around the midseason mark, we made a conscious effort to spend more time on these situational moments. Practicing them, showing them on film, growing after every game and making sure our guys understand what we want to do on both ends of the floor at the end of games. We closed out last year strong where we won eight straight, maybe nine of our last ten close games.”

Charlotte’s clutch wins this season have come over Chicago (Oct. 23), at Golden State (Nov. 2), Indiana (Nov. 5), Detroit (Nov. 15) and at New York (Nov. 16). Looking back to the previous three campaigns, the Hornets went 18-21 in clutch-time games in 2016-17 (.462; 20th in NBA), with a big chunk of those victories coming in March and April. They finished 16-25 (.390; 24th) in 2017-18 and 22-29 the year prior in such situations (.431; 23rd).

“You can never replicate the stress and anxiety that we’ll feel in a game, but what you can do is talk through those moments,” Borrego explained. “So, in the huddle, we remind them how yesterday we worked on this, now let’s go execute it. I think having done it in a practice setting, it just eases us because we’ve done this before. That lessens one level of their stress having gone through it, walked through it, practiced it a day or two before in those moments.”

During clutch time, the Hornets currently rank tied for 11th in the league in scoring (10.0 PPG), third in field-goal percentage (51.0%), tied for fifth in three-point percentage (40.9%), tied for sixth in personal fouls drawn (3.0) and tied for seventh in turnovers allowed (0.6).

The team’s offensive rating in clutch time is also a seismic 135.6 points scored per 100 possessions, the second-highest mark in the league behind only the 11-2 Boston Celtics. Charlotte is also sixth in net rating (22.0), third in effective field-goal percentage (60.2%), fourth in points scored off turnovers (1.9) and third in second-chance points allowed (0.4).

No one Hornet is taking over time and time again when entering clutch time. Amongst players appearing in at least four such situations this year, Marvin Williams is averaging a team-high 3.3 PPG (13th in the NBA) and 0.8 three-point field goals (T-5th). Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier, Malik Monk, Bismack Biyombo, Dwayne Bacon, P.J. Washington and Cody Martin have all made key contributions at one spot or another as well.

Having a handful of different guys to turn to down the stretch of close games has certainly helped address the team’s clutch-time troubles. Despite how spectacular Kemba Walker was during his illustrious tenure in Charlotte, opposing squads often knew he was getting the ball in crucial situations, allowing them to send double teams and extra help defenders.

“We haven’t had just one guy that goes out and is our main scorer every night,” Graham said. “We have to bank on each other. One night it can be me, one night it can be Terry, one night it can be Bake, one night it can be Miles, Malik or whatever the case may be. We just have to make sure we’re prepared, ride the hot hand and keep playing through any adversity.”

Borrego added, “At the end of the day, the players have to play. They have to make shots, they have to execute and I think that’s where I’ve been pleasantly surprised. This early in the season with this young a group, we’ve been able to execute and play with poise down the stretch, which you need to do. There’s not necessarily a trick play that’s getting us these wins, but obviously, we’ve made some shots out of some draw-ups.”

The ongoing challenge for the Hornets is playing well enough for the first 43 minutes of the game in order to give themselves a chance heading into clutch time. There’s quite a fine line between winning and losing in the NBA and right now, Charlotte is getting better at making the right plays when it matters most.


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