Containing Kemba Walker Priority for Magic

By John Denton
Feb. 14, 2018

ORLANDO – At some point tonight, the Charlotte Hornets will go into a set featuring Kemba Walker at the top of the offense with the ball in his hands and either a center or a power forward approaching to set a screen. Walker will rub off that pick and either find a shot for himself or someone else open because of the defensive attention he demands.

It’s a set that will likely give the Orlando Magic nightmares considering how often it has completely bedeviled them for years. How they defend that particular play – Charlotte’s most efficient all season, according to head coach Steve Clifford – will go a long way in determining Orlando’s chances of finally notching a win against the rival Hornets.

Orlando (18-38) heads into tonight’s final game before the break for the NBA All-Star Game hoping to break a nine-game losing streak against Charlotte (23-33). The Magic have lost to the Hornets twice already this season in Charlotte and they haven’t beaten the Hornets since Dec. 16, 2015.

``There are really two teams who have kicked our (butts) the last few years and it’s the Wizards and the Hornets,’’ Magic guard Evan Fournier said. ``So, we’d love to kick their (butt). They always give us problems.’’

The biggest problem, of course, is Walker, an all-star this season while averaging 22.9 points, 5.8 assists and 3.4 rebounds a game. He’s averaged 31 points a game in the two defeat of Orlando this season and that’s coming on the heels of him averaging 20.3 points and 4.5 assists while shooting 54.2 percent from the field last season in four Charlotte victories over the Magic.

``He’s why we’ve struggled against these guys,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. ``We have to execute our plan, we can’t let him get to the rim and we’ve got to get over screens. They’re a great screening team and that’s one of the things that helps (Walker) be at his best. We’ve got to fight through that stuff.’’

Both Vogel and Clifford said defending the high pick-and-roll play – especially when the player with the ball is an elite shooter with speed – is the most difficult play in the NBA to defend. As much success as the Hornets have had running the play, they also have nightmares trying to stop it against other foes with talented playmakers.

``The two toughest things to defend in the NBA are, a. the great player – (Stephen) Curry, (Kevin) Durant and LeBron (James) – just figuring out a way to guard them for 48 minutes,’’ said Clifford, an assistant coach in Orlando from 2007-12. ``The second thing is not just the pick-and-roll, but the high pick-and-roll. I had a college coach say to me the other day, `We’re having trouble with our high pick-and-roll defense’ and I told him, `Come to our league.’ If somebody has a way to guard a high pick-and-roll, they could make a lot of money in the NBA.’’

Orlando won three games in a row last week while beating Miami, Cleveland and Atlanta in impressive fashion, but it has since dropped hard-fought losses to Milwaukee and Chicago. Charlotte has dropped its last four games – its third such skid of the season. Despite those woes for the Hornets, Walker has averaged 25.5 points over his last four games.

The Magic will most likely need to hold him well below that number tonight to snap an extended skid against the Hornets. And they’ll have to figure out a way to slow down Charlotte’s pick-and-roll sets with Walker running the show.

``If you look at our numbers, (Walker’s) pick-and-rolls with (Walker)-and-(centers) or (Walker)-and-(power forwards) are the best things that we do,’’ Clifford said. ``He makes the right play and it’s not just a play for him. He throws the ball back to the screener and he creates things on the weak side of the floor. He’s just a really good pick-and-roll player.’’

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