Two nights after having to settle for a split of their home-and-home series with the Southeast-leading Hawks, the Bucks renew acquaintances with the Hornets in Charlotte tonight looking for a bit of revenge. Though they've been one of the league's most disappointing teams overall, the 10-21 Hornets have seemingly specialized in delivering traumatic losses to the Bucks this season: Opening night saw the Hornets come from behind to deliver the Bucks an agonizing overtime defeat, while last week's defeat of the Bucks in Milwaukee led to a prolonged players-only meeting.
On the bright side, losing to the Hornets has now twice served as something of a rallying point for Jason Kidd's crew. The Bucks rebounded from last week's loss to the Hornets by delivering perhaps their most impressive win of the season in Atlanta (hooray for team meetings?), and the opening night loss actually seemed to inspire a fair bit of confidence that the young Bucks would be competitive going forward. But while gold stars and silver linings are nice, Jason Kidd has probably had enough of those against the Hornets. A win would do nicely, right?
Steve Clifford's crew delivered some Christmas coal to the Bucks stockings on December 23, winning their fourth straight game with a 108-101 decision in Milwaukee. But Charlotte's December hot streak went cold after Christmas -- they lost by 23 in OKC on Boxing Day, followed by a disappointing 102-94 home loss to the Magic 24 hours later. The latter defeat was especially frustrating given a) the win kept the Magic one game ahead of the chasing Hornets in the East playoff picture and b) it wasted a 42-point explosion from Kemba Walker.
As for tonight, here's one tip to watch out for from At the Hive's Frank Berndt:
However, if Milwaukee's coach Jason Kidd has gotten his hands on the tape from Charlotte's game against the Orlando Magic, there may be a few new wrinkles added to the Bucks gameplan. The Magic exploited Walker and Al Jefferson by starting the screen with a running start for the guard and it lead to countless trips to the rim for Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton.
Despite all of that, the Hornets remain just four games behind Brooklyn for the East's final playoff spot, though they also have plenty of competition with the Pacers, Celtics and Magic all standing between them and the Nets.
The Bucks' injury report once again has Larry Sanders (illness), Ersan Ilyasova (concussion), Damien Inglis (foot) and Jabari Parker (ACL) as out, leaving Zaza Pachulia and John Henson the tall task of defending Al Jefferson (probable with a groin strain) on the block. Expect lots of doubles as the Bucks try to force someone else to beat them from the outside.
As for the Hornets, they will once again be without summer signing / lightning rod / pariah Lance Stephenson, while Jeff Taylor and Noah Vonleh are both on D-League assignments.
Not much has changed since the last time these two teams met, so I'll just copy-paste from Tuesday's preview (note the Hornets are now 17th in defensive efficiency, among other small changes):
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.
Matching Up: Knight vs. Walker
Kemba Walker got a $48 million extension in October. Brandon Knight did not.
So it probably wasn't a coincidence that Knight (34 points on 13/21 shooting, 5 ast) looked a bit more amped up than usual against Walker on Tuesday, though it's also true that Knight has traditionally put up good numbers against Charlotte. Remember that he had 22 points and 13 dimes on opening night, and he also averaged 16.8 p/7.5a/5.0r/2.5to vs. the Bobcats last year. Walker answered with 27 points on 9/18 shooting to earn the win last week, time and again breaking past the Bucks' P&R defense to get into the paint and either finish or kick it out for good looks.
Unfortunately for Knight, last week's game also seemed like the ultimate example of the Brandon Knight Catch-22. Despite his box score exploits and the Bucks' above-average offensive efficiency for the game, Knight was once again the target of questions afterwards. Was he playing too much for himself? Could he have gotten other guys more involved? It's a tired line of questioning for Knight, especially on a night when the team's defense held more of the blame for the loss.
But despite Knight's across-the-board statistical improvements, the Bucks continue to tinker with their lineups in order to find the best combination, hinting that the Bucks are similarly still trying to figure out what they have with the recently-turned-23-year-old. The latest incarnation came in Kidd's decision to start Kendall Marshall next to Knight in the Atlanta games, moving Knight more off the ball with the starting five. He didn't stand out in either contest, which perhaps isn't surprising; though he's historically been a good catch-and-shoot guy, his numbers will always look better when he's able to have the ball in his hands more regularly.
"We can't let teams get second chance opportunities. Even though we kept them pretty low [shooting] defensively, still they got the momentum with that. They have great shooters from outside. Same thing with offensive rebounds. They get an offensive rebound and they're kicking it outside to shooters and they're knocking down threes."
On the team's effort...
"This is what we do. We fight. We're going to be in a lot of games. We're going to play hard every game because that is our job, that's our mentality. Unfortunately, we came up short today, which we didn't want to, but we have another one on Monday."
Charlotte generally hasn't hurt opponents with second chances or forced turnovers -- they're bottom five in both categories -- but the Bucks surrendered 11 offensive boards and coughed it up 20 times against the Hornets in Milwaukee. Need to do better there, Bucks.