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Wednesday NBA Roundup: Charlotte Hornets Emerging as Surprise Threat Out East

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 10, 2015

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 9:  Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets handles the ball against the Miami Heat on December 9, 2015 at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice:  Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)
Kent Smith/Getty Images

After a horrible 2014-15 season, the Charlotte Hornets have emerged to rank among the NBA's most pleasant first-quarter surprises.

Believe it or not, that was the easy part.

With a roster full of short-timers and a demonstrated organizational penchant for winning now, the real work—capitalizing on an unforeseeable hot start—is ahead.

Charlotte appeared ready for the task again on Wednesday, downing the Miami Heat by a final of 99-81 and running its winning streak to three games. The win moved the Hornets into second place in the East.

Behind a triple-double from Nicolas Batum, whose resurgent shooting and unselfish facilitation have transformed a once-stagnant offense, the Hornets bolted out to a 20-point halftime lead that they extended by another six points in the third period.

Batum needed just 28 minutes to amass 10 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds, and his constant ball movement influenced the entire team. Charlotte registered 27 assists on 40 made baskets, turning the rock over just 11 times against a Heat defense that ranks second in the league, per NBA.com.

It's difficult to overstate the transformation the Hornets have undergone since last season, and there's more to it than Batum's impactful presence.

In recent years, Charlotte has been a defense-first outfit that got just enough post offense from Al Jefferson to get by. Last season, of course, everything went belly up as Lance Stephenson's woeful campaign seemed to infect everyone else on the roster.

Stephenson is gone now, but so is Jefferson—currently out with a calf strain and suspended by the NBA for violating the anti-drug policy on Wednesday. But because the Hornets have embraced the three-ball (and added the personnel required to shoot it accurately), their offensive growth should continue unchecked. Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer noted the Hornets increased use of the three-ball in comparison to last season:

Rick Bonnell @rick_bonnell

Hornets games with 10 or more 3s this season: 9. Games Hornets had 10 or more 3s all last season: 9.

What's more, Charlotte's former defensive identity has re-emerged since Jefferson has been out. That's no great surprise, as the Hornets have held teams to 94.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench this year, per NBA.com. Pre-injury, Jefferson's presence on the floor resulted in a demonstrably worse defensive rating of 104.4.

Charlotte has won eight of its last 10, with the only two losses coming against the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Imagine how much better the overall 13-8 record might look if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hadn't gone down for the year in early October.

It's important for Charlotte to make the most of this surprising season because unlike most other up-and-coming, turnaround teams in the league, it's not built for a sustained upward trajectory. There are some young players occupying key roles, and many of them—Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb, to name a couple—will be under contract through at least 2018.

But three of the five regular starters—Jefferson, Batum and Marvin Williams—will hit free agency this summer.

Maybe the Hornets will retain most of those guys, and maybe they won't. If we've learned anything from their recent moves (like shipping out former lottery pick Noah Vonleh for the veteran Batum last summer), this seems like a team that wants to dream a little bigger and chase instant gratification in free agency. There could be serious turnover ahead.

But whatever Charlotte does, this season's development shows the right cultural pillars are in place, as CBSSports.com's Matt Moore pointed out:

That may matter more than anything.

Steve Clifford has shown the ability to build a great defense and a great offense, depending on personnel. That's vital adaptability, and he deserves credit for instilling a selfless style that should bring out the best in whatever group of players wears Hornets jerseys in the future.

This specific Charlotte team is unique. It has changed immensely in a very short time, and it needs to focus on maximizing its potential now because so many important components could change. Of course, if the recent past is any indication, the Hornets handle change pretty well.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Grooming changes excluded; Jeremy Lin's hair just keeps getting weirder.

OK, What's the Next Idea?

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Hoping for a little more defense in the first unit while giving the struggling Nikola Mirotic some bench time to collect himself, the Chicago Bulls inserted Taj Gibson into the starting lineup alongside Pau Gasol. It was a good idea in theory, but some of the deeper problems plaguing Chicago remained in a 105-100 loss to the Boston Celtics.

The Bulls offense sputtered throughout, leaning on Jimmy Butler's game-high 36 points to keep things close. And the strange lapses in communication and odd chemistry that have made nearly every Chicago game a slog this year persisted, per Nick Friedell of ESPN.com:

Nick Friedell @NickFriedell

Been saying it all year -- the Bulls just don't look like they enjoy playing with one another at the moment.

Nick Friedell @NickFriedell

Noah and Butler now staring at each other after latest defensive lapse. The wheels are falling off the bus tonight for the Bulls.

For his part, Gibson was fine. He scored eight points on 4-of-6 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds in 20 minutes. Strangely, though, he logged just one minute of playing time in the fourth quarter.

The Bulls' plus-0.4 net rating suggests they may not be quite as good as their 11-8 mark says they are. And if continued lineup tinkering doesn't result in a meaningful change, we could be looking at a .500 team that struggles to make the playoffs.

Somewhere, Brandon Knight Is Smiling

DeAndre Jordan did it again, you guys.

For nearly three years, DJ's dehumanizing slam over then-Piston Brandon Knight has occupied the top spot in the unofficial "well, that was just mean" dunk rankings. Greg Monroe was there for that one, so he probably should have known better than to step in front of Jordan on Wednesday.

But he did it anyway, and the Los Angeles Clippers' 109-95 win over the Milwaukee Bucks got an early exclamation point.

I'm not sure we can let Knight off the hook for good. But at least he's got some company now.

Otto Porter Isn't Ready Yet

Dec 7, 2015; Miami, FL, USA; Washington Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr. (22) dribbles the ball during the first half against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Wouldn't it be great if the Washington Wizards had a high-lottery talent to support John Wall and Bradley Beal? A third star on the wing maybe, who could knock down open shots from deep and defend two or three positions?

Otto Porter, the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, has the lottery part covered. It's the rest of that description he hasn't quite lived up to yet. And a couple of rough highlights from the Wizards' 109-103 loss to the Houston Rockets provided proof:

No biggie there. James Harden has finally played himself into shape, and he does this to lots of good defenders. He had 42 points on 23 shots in Houston's win. But this one's harder to explain:

It's true that Porter's counting numbers are up this year—his first as a regular starter. But he's shooting less efficiently from the field and especially from three, where his 25 percent accuracy rate makes him a massive, offense-hindering liability defenses happily ignore. It's an assessment SB Nation's Mike Prada agrees with:

Reggie Comma Mike Prada @MikePradaSBN

Can’t put Otto on the weakside of a Wall pick and roll. Too easy to help off him and he won’t make you pay.

Porter is still only 22, so it's not fair to write him off entirely. And the numbers, per NBA.com, show Washington is a heck of a lot better with him on the court than off. But as we search for reasons behind Washington's disappointing start (injuries on the front line, Wall's dip in assist rate, a half-serious commitment to small ball without ideal personnel), the simplest one may be the best: Porter isn't anything close to the star the Wizards need him to be.

Kudos to the Raptors

Kawhi Leonard was sick, Tim Duncan only played 20 minutes and the San Antonio Spurs probably forgot what real opponents looked like after smashing the Philadelphia 76ers by a franchise-record 51 points on Monday, but let's give a shout-out to the Toronto Raptors for knocking off the league's second-best team by a final score of 97-94.

Toronto got 28 points from DeMar DeRozan and somehow overcame 21 turnovers and just three made treys on the night to beat the Spurs, dropping them to 18-5 on the year.

The Raptors have played the indomitable Golden State Warriors tough twice this season, and they can now add this quality result to a list of wins that includes the Cavaliers, Hawks, Clippers, Thunder, Pacers and Celtics.

There have been rough patches, and the offense is almost always an ugly grind, but Toronto has proved it doesn't get intimidated. Keep an eye on these Raptors—especially when DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas get healthy.

This Is One Way to Stretch the Floor

Matt Barnes was supposed to give the Memphis Grizzlies a reliable threat from the deep corner while fitting seamlessly into their we-will-absolutely-fight-you defensive ethos.

The grit has been there all season, but Barnes' long ball (27.9 percent from three coming into Wednesday's game) had mostly been missing.

Consider the above game-winning heave overcompensation.

Everything about that sequence is odd: Detroit goes too early, Memphis doesn't take a timeout, and then Barnes fires off a 50-footer despite having another two or three seconds to find a closer look.

Results are results, though, and Memphis is now 13-10 on the year after the 93-92 win. With a brutal six-game slate ahead featuring Charlotte, Miami, Washington, Chicago, the Dallas Mavericks and Indiana Pacers, the Grizz will need some momentum...and probably some long-range shooting.

Barnes, it seems, can provide both.

Doing the Right Thing Pays Off

Kobe Bryant finally relented Wednesday, sitting out most of the minutes after halftime in the Los Angeles Lakers' 123-122 overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. And his decision met with immediately positive results.

Rookie D'Angelo Russell, bounced from the starting lineup earlier this week and an inexplicably frequent occupant of head coach Byron Scott's doghouse, hit a tough runner to send the game into overtime. It was a shot he almost certainly wouldn't have been allowed to take if Bryant had been on the floor.

It seems Kobe understands what the Lakers' long-term priorities should be better than Scott, per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

Mike Bresnahan @Mike_Bresnahan

Kobe did not play after 3:56 of third quarter because he told Byron, "Let them go." He was talking about Lakers young players.

L.A. lost the game, but Russell scored 23 points in 32 minutes, and Julius Randle, whom Scott also yanked from the first unit, put up 20 points and 12 rebounds on 7-of-13 shooting in 33 minutes.

So after demeaning his young duo hours earlier in the day, the ever contradictory Scott is flipping his approach again, per Serena Winters of Lakers Nation:

Serena Winters @SerenaWinters

Byron (on TWC) said probably more towards 2nd half of the season, we'll see Kobe playing less in 4th quarters "so that these guys can grow."

Comparatively speaking, Bryant is the steady voice of reason on the Lakers. Digest that.

The Magic Will Get There...Eventually

Matt York/Associated Press

If you need a three to tie in the waning seconds, which the Orlando Magic did against the Phoenix Suns, wouldn't you want, oh, I don't know, guys who can shoot threes on the floor?

The Magic fell, 107-104, to the Suns after Victor Oladipo and Evan Fournier couldn't connect from deep on their final possession. It was a disappointing result for one of the East's best young teams. Coming in, Orlando had won six of its last seven and three of four on the road.

But the chances to extend that run shrunk when head coach Scott Skiles put Elfrid Payton and Nikola Vucevic on the floor to close the game. Those two players are keys to the Magic's overall success, but neither is a deep threat (nor is Oladipo, really), and the Magic needed a triple to tie.

Maybe this is nitpicking, but if the Magic want to separate themselves from the logjam of solid teams clogging the Eastern Conference's middle tier, they need to seek out every angle, every edge, possible. And while this might not have been a game Orlando should have expected to win (especially not with Alex Len going off for 20 points and 14 rebounds), it didn't do itself any favors with some of the late-game lineup decisions.

If the Magic want to stand out in the competitive East, they'd better shore up shaky sequences like the one that sealed Wednesday's loss.

Nice work by the Suns here, though. They've lost way too many tight ones this season, and even if they surrendered a late rally, escaping with a win has to feel good.

Stats accurate through games played Dec. 9.

Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

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