Okay! We get it! We are more than humbled NBA! You can chill out on this whole beating us thing now.
With that out of the way, let's get onto the recap. The Hornets got off to a quick start tonight in Oklahoma City, quickly building a 10-2 lead behind the hot shooting of Marco Belinelli and an aggressive Chris Paul. Unfortunately, OKC easily jumped back into it and the game was a dogfight the rest of the way that ultimately ended in OKC's favor.
For OKC, it was Russell Westbrook controlling things early, driving to the basket and making sharp passes to open shooters in Jeff Green and Thabo Sefolosha. I was impressed with Westbrook's court vision. He's turned into a very impressive player who is both a capable point guard and dangerous scorer. The problem is he still turns the ball over profusely, finishing with 8 of them tonight. Nonetheless, he was huge for the Thunder and was the primary reason the Thunder finished the first quarter with a 23-19 lead. Things didn't go any better for the Hornets in the second quarter. The Hornets were packing the paint which led to open perimeter looks for the Thunder. The rotations were horrible (I was reminded of the slow-footed rotations of last season) and there was a short period of time in which it looked like the Thunder might blow the game open due to a series of made three pointers. Yet the Hornets managed to stay in it, and overall the defense was actually fairly solid. The Hornets finished the half holding the Thunder to 102.0 points per 100 possessions, which is a good mark. By the end of the game that mark would improve, with the Thunder scoring only 100.00 points per 100 possessions. Unfortunately, the Hornets were only scoring at a pace of 98.0 points per 100 possessions in the first half and finished at a mere 93.7. That's, well.... terrible. The only thing that seemed to be working offensively in the first half was the Paul/Okafor pick and roll, and Okafor racked up several "and one" plays as a result. Otherwise things were ugly on the offensive end.
Things would improve slightly in the third quarter. Chris Paul and David West came out playing great basketball. It seemed like they were finally going to answer all our "2nd half disappearing act" criticisms we've been lobbing at our all-stars lately. The Hornets finished the quarter up by 2 points and the game finally seemed to be swinging in their favor. The bench came out in the fourth quarter with a nice little run and built a small lead. Predictably, they promptly lost that lead and the offense suddenly stalled again. Willie Green was infuriating. There was one possession in which he did nothing but dribble for 15 seconds and then launched a contested jumper. No one else on the floor touched the ball. That simply shouldn't happen. Jarret Jack wasn't a whole lot better. He certainly did a better of job of running the offense and he hit a single three pointer, but personally I've been thoroughly unimpressed with Jack thus far. His handle is somewhat shaky for a point guard, his shot hasn't seemed particularly consistent, and far too often he leaves his feet to make passes. I'm not exactly a Gil McGregor fan, but the man has a point with his constant repetition of the "never leave your feet a passer" phrase. It rarely leads to good things.
As for the rest of the bench, D.J. Mbenga fouled a lot and Jason Smith missed several jumpers. Smith did have one highlight play, an awkward looking alley oop, but otherwise it was an off night for him. I offered Smith a lot of mild praise in my article on him last week, but he's been pretty disappointing in the past few games. He's not getting the open looks he was getting earlier in the season and as a result he simply isn't contributing very much. He was 2 of 7 from the field and had 3 turnovers tonight in just 17 minutes.
Despite the mixed play from the bench, the Hornets still had a chance to win this game in the fourth quarter once the starters came back in. Unfortunately, the offense continued to be an issue. The Hornets strategy seemed to be the force feeding of David West in the paint, but not only was West being effectively covered by the long, tall Kevin Durant, he was also being hounded and crowded by the whole Thunder team any time he tried to get a shot off. The Thunder forced West into a series of tough shots, which he missed, and West wasn't given enough room to kick the ball back out. It was a solid strategy and it worked. West would finish with 20 points, but it took him 24 shots to get there. The Thunder also continued to collect offensive rebounds, which is something they did incredibly well throughout the game. The Thunder had 11 more offensive rebounds than the Hornets, and 20 more rebounds total. Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic all did excellent boardwork tonight.
Thus the Hornets fall to 12-5. After starting the season 8-0, they have gone 4-5 in their last nine, and just 1-4 in their last five. There have been issues on defense and offense, but I want to specifically talk about offense tonight.
It's a bit hard to understand why this team isn't better offensively. I will say that the Thunder did look pretty solid defensively tonight, but over the course of this season they've been rather poor on that end of the floor. Chris Paul is the best point guard in the game and has, arguably, more offensive weapons to work with then he's ever had before. Why isn't this offense one of the best in the league or at least above average? Don't get me wrong, I'm more than happy to have a defensive-minded team that ranks as one of the best in the league at keeping teams from racking up points. However, we've seen over the past few games that this defense can and will falter. Sometimes, you just need to start making shots, but the Hornets have had trouble doing that this season. I'm not sure what the problem is. Is Monty so focused on defense that he's neglecting offense? Does the team just need more time to gel since many of these guys haven't played together for long?
Two things. One, I really don't know why the offense hasn't been more effective but I do know there's a possibly highly effective offensive weapon sitting on the bench. I think its a real shame Marcus Thornton is not being given the opportunity to play with Chris Paul.
Two, I believe Chris Paul needs to be more of a scorer. I realize that it's really not a part of his basketball nature even though he has been a fairly prolific scorer in the past. I honestly don't think he would care if he averaged 0 PPG, as long as his teammates were scoring and his team was winning. That's admirable, but I think this team might be more successful offensively if he got back to dropping 20 a night like he was doing a couple of seasons ago. I could of course be completely wrong about that. Chris Paul knows a lot more about basketball than I do. Still, it seems to me that Chris Paul being a constant offensive threat will make things a lot harder on opposing defenses.
So that's that. As frustrating as this recent stretch of losses and narrow wins has been, the Hornets are still in fairly good shape. I'll have a post for you guys on Thursday that hopefully will give everyone some perspective about this disappointing stretch of games. For now, I'll leave you with the classic advice of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is- DON'T PANIC.