“This is a tough week,” the coach said. “We play three on the road and then we come home and play the team that’s the best in the west right now. But this is where you can learn. We’re good enough to win all of those games.”
Barely minutes into their barometer-gauging week, the Hornets found themselves in a familiar spot: wondering about the health of a key player whose production is nearly impossible to replace.
On the same night the Hornets welcomed Terry Rozier back from a nine-game absence and had PJ Washington in the fold again following his one-game stint on the injury list, the Hornets watched their star point guard exit their 130-117 loss to Orlando at Amway Center.
“It was about the defense tonight, though,” Clifford said. “It’s fact. You have to defend. Or you might be able to have a good year and you get to the games that matter and you are going to have no shot. You are going to get your ass kicked.
“Which happens every year for some teams because they don’t want to put the work in during the year. We need to put the work in starting like now.”
With or without the presence of LaMelo Ball, who’s status is uncertain.
Ball went up for a left-handed layup with 2:26 remaining in the second quarter and landed awkwardly as he got tangled up with Orlando’s Paolo Banchero, leaving Ball to crumple to the court in agony. The Hornets’ floor general had to be helped off the floor and went immediately into the locker room, unable to put much weight on his foot as he uncomfortably hopped off.
The main concern for the Hornets (5-10) and their never-ending woes? It’s the same ankle Ball had surgery on in March, the very injury that prevented him from being cleared for full basketball activities until a few weeks before training camp began last month. He’s worn ankle braces for extra support, hoping they would help keep him healthy.
Ball hasn’t made it through a full schedule yet since entering the league in 2020 and appeared in only 36 games last season after injuring his ankles four times. He was on a roll of late, compiling a multitude of impressive stats.
Leading into their matchup with the Magic, Ball averaged 33.8 points per game in his last five outings, representing the highest scoring average in any five-game span of his career. He’s also posted at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists in seven straight games, marking the longest streak in franchise history.
Ball is one of seven players averaging 25 points, five rebounds, five assists and a steal per game, joining Dallas’ Luka Doncic, Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Los Angeles’ LeBron James and Denver’s Nikola Jokic.
In short, he was playing really well and the Hornets may have to figure out how to cope without him yet again.
Here’s what else of note Clifford had to about the Hornets’ streak-ending defeat in Orlando:
On Terry Rozier’s play:
“I thought he was really good, probably our best player,” Clifford said. “He’s such a good competitor. He does guard. He plays well at both ends of the floor. He badly wants to win, kept us in the game there when they started to break away. And it’s great to have him back.”
“You can’t worry about who is not there, because at the end of the day, it’s a long season,” Clifford said. “We are just starting. The other part is you better know, though, why you are winning and why you are losing. For us, we’ve done some good things. Our lack of depth has been a major, major problem. People talk about bad starts — it’s actually not our starters. Because of so many injuries, we break the lineup quicker than most teams do and it hasn’t been good for us.
“And we have to get to that (full strength). But I like our team. Getting Miles (Bridges) back is obviously a big, big piece in every aspect of the game. Melo (was) starting to play better. Mark Williams is playing better and better and there’s a lot to build on. I think our record is not where we hoped it would be, but again you have to know why that happens. If you overreact, you are never going to make the best of situations going forward.”
On trying to get it done defensively
“We have to be more committed to defending in the halfcourt,” Clifford said. “We have played (15) games, 14 of them more than good enough to win offensively regardless of who’s out there and we can’t pick and choose when we are going to defend.”
He added: “The league is still, as much as we get away from it, it’s still a matchup league,” Clifford said. “I tell our guys this all the time — ‘If you can’t either be a good individual or team defender, you better be (scoring) like 27 (points) a night. Because we are five-out now. This isn’t 15 years ago when we were three-out, two-in. You take a guy that was smart, a good offensive player, a ball mover and if he was disciplined he could do stuff defensively. It’s hard to do that now.
“You can’t just come back anymore and say, ‘We are going to play this defense unless you have exceptional defenders. There’s only like four or five teams in our league in my opinion that can say, ‘We are going to play our base.”
Clifford continued: “If you don’t have that kind of roster, you better be able to trap more, zone more, press a little bit. You’ve got to try to keep teams off balance.”