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Hornets vs. Bucks Preview: With Lance Stephenson out, Charlotte hopes to continue march to respectability in Milwaukee

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Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Back in late October, the Hornets' come-from-behind season opening OT victory over the Bucks might have seemed like a fitting statement about where the two teams were at the time. The Bucks looked frisky but ultimately too inexperienced down the stretch, while Charlotte started slowly before reminding us why many expected them to contend for a top 4-5 seed in the East this year.

Two months later?  Well, so much for October narratives. While the Bucks' opening night effort was a hint at the surprising success that we've seen in November and December, the Hornets have spent most of the last two months struggling to recapture the mojo they found under head coach Steve Clifford last season. The good news for Clifford and company is that things are finally starting to look up: They land in Milwaukee having blown out the Sixers, Jazz and Nuggets over the past week, bringing them to within three games of Brooklyn for the final playoff spot in the East.

Lance-less and loving it. Lance Stephenson (pelvic strain) has missed the last three games, and the Hornets have won each of them by an average of 21.3 points per game. Coincidence? Probably not.

Stephenson's history of clashing with teammates was well-documented in Indiana, and so far it's been the same story in Charlotte. Though Stephenson's three-year, $27 million deal has a cap-friendly team option for the 16/17 season, no one seems terribly interested in rolling the dice on a guy that could wreck a locker room -- even rumored interest from the Pacers has been dampened by reports of Indiana players pushing back against the idea.

Hornets' defensive drop-off. After riding the league's fifth ranked defense to 43 wins in 13/14, the Hornets rank just 19th this season, with their offense once again treading water in the mid-20s.

After ranking first in defensive rebounding and second in free throw rate a year ago, the Hornets haven't suffered much of a drop off in either of those departments -- they're once again first in defensive rebound rate and fourth in free throws allowed per shot attempt. But they're in the bottom third of the league in both two point and three point field goal percentage allowed, underscoring their fundamental inability to prevent teams from getting buckets. Needless to say it's tough to succeed defensively that way, especially since the BobHornets have ranked in the league's bottom five in turnover rate the past two seasons.  What's interesting is that they also struggled to prevent threes a year ago, finishing below league average in both opponent three pointers (19th) and shooting from deep (24th).

So on paper the Hornets' decline would seem to trace back almost exclusively to their inability to stop teams from scoring inside the arc. Based on their success last year, the theory of Clifford's defensive success would seem obvious: Charlotte packed the paint in order to force misses inside the arc and prevent second chances -- at the expense of not forcing many turnovers and surrendering more open threes. Most of the same is true this season...except for the part about forcing misses in the first place.

Bucks getting healthy? Ersan Ilyasova (nasal fractures) could be back for Jason Kidd tonight, offering some much needed depth against a strong frontline led by Al Jefferson (19.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg). After starting the season with Marvin Williams as their starting four, the Hornets have now gone back to a bigger starting five featuring Jefferson and 2013 lottery pick Cody Zeller at power forward, with Bismack Biyombo, Jason Maxiell and Williams providing depth off the bench.

John Henson (foot sprain) and Damien Inglis (broken foot) are listed as out, though Inglis has returned to basketball activities and Henson is also supposed to be nearing his return after nearly a month on the sidelines. As for Jabari Parker (torn ACL), there's been no indication yet when his surgery would take place.

Bucks' offense firing. Though they rank just 21st in overall offensive efficiency, the Bucks lead the league in eFG% this month and over their last 18 games are 12th in offensive efficiency and 5th in true shooting percentage. Which is especially important considering their defense has ranked just 24th overall in that span.

Matchups. This year's Kemba Walker (16.5 ppg, 5.8 apg, 17.8 PER, 49.2% true shooting) has looked a lot like the Kemba Walker of the past two seasons, though this year's Kemba is much, much richer. Or at least he will be soon.

The 24-year-old former UConn star signed a four-year, $48 million extension in October, a rather important precedent considering Brandon Knight is 31 months younger, heading to restricted free agency next summer, and putting up better numbers so far. STAY TUNED.

Curse of the BobHornets. The Bucks have lost six straight to Charlotte, including a pair of embarrassing home losses last season. Anyone else remember Larry Drew having to apologize for his team's effort against the Hornets at home last November? Related: Have you offered to hug Jason Kidd today?

Merry Christmas and happy holidays everyone!

2014-2015 Season
December 23, 2014
BMO Harris Bradley Center | Milwaukee, WI
7:00 CT
Fox Sports Wisconsin/ | 620 WTMJ / Audio League Pass
Probable Starters
Brandon Knight
PG Kemba Walker
O.J. Mayo SG Gerald Henderson
Jared Dudley SF Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
GIannis Antetokounmpo PF Cody Zeller
Larry Sanders
C Al Jefferson
2014/15 Advanced Stats
93.9 (12h) Pace 92.4 (21st)
104.4 (21st) ORtg 102.6 (25th)
106.0 (13th) DRtg 107.0 (19th)

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