What Steve Clifford said about the Hornets’ in-season tournament win over Washington

It’s premature to begin thinking about being in the desert next month, but the Charlotte Hornets got off to a pretty good start in the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament.

Playing in their first matchup of East Group 3 action, the Hornets rode another solid fourth quarter from star guard LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward’s second-half surge and Mark Williams’ career output to pull out a 124-117 win at Capital One Arena on Friday night.

“We struggled a lot of the game,” coach Steve Clifford said. “Trying to guard in the fourth quarter was better. We held them to 20. We didn’t shoot the ball well, obviously, but we didn’t turn the ball over tonight. Only 10 turnovers and we got a bunch of points in the paint.

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (1) makes a move to the basket on Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma (33) during the second half at Capital One Arena.
Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (1) makes a move to the basket on Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma (33) during the second half at Capital One Arena.

“So, we are going to have to figure out the 3-point shooting, because we got what we’ll make eventually. We did make them late, but as much as anything it was just great fourth-quarter play.”

Here’s what else Clifford has to say about the Hornets’ matchup in Washington:

Clifford fan of tournament format

Count Clifford among those who are in favor of the NBA’s latest wrinkle.

Being a big soccer fan, like Manchester United, we lost two weeks in the Carabao Cup 3-0 and it was a big deal,” Clifford said before the game. “Being a fan, I enjoy the soccer. Last year they won it and it was a big deal. I watched the game. It was at Wembley (Stadium).

“And I can see that it will take some time. But I do think that a single-elimination tournament when you get out of pool play could be a lot of fun and hopefully we can get there.”

Each conference is broken up into three groups and the Hornets (3-5) have the Wizards, Milwaukee and New York in theirs. There are four designated games in group play and the Hornets’ composite record in those four outings will determine whether they move to the knockout round.

Although the tournament is in its infant stage, Clifford believes the players’ competitive instinct is going to kick in because of the extra incentive: $500,000 for each member of the team that wins it all in Las Vegas on Dec. 9.

“I think it will,” Clifford said. “For our fan base and everybody, it’s not part of what we are used to, where again, if you watch European soccer it’s a big part of what they do. So, our guys, a lot of the reason these guys are here is because they are the best competitors and it’s another opportunity to compete. And I do think the single-elimination thing can be an exciting dynamic as people get used to it.”

On keeping Mark Williams and Nick Richards on the floor

Mark Williams was on a mission inside. He posted 21 points and snatched a career-best 24 rebounds, establishing a new franchise record with 15 offensive boards. Overall, the Hornets collected 67 rebounds and the 28 they amassed on the offensive end represented the second-most in franchise history.

“It’s got to become who we are,” Clifford said. “If you are going to play big, that’s got to be a part of the game that we are good at and it’s got to be consistent. So, hopefully tonight’s a step in the right direction.”

Charlotte Hornets center Nick Richards (4) dunks during the first half at Capital One Arena.
Charlotte Hornets center Nick Richards (4) dunks during the first half at Capital One Arena.

Those numbers are what makes Clifford want to ensure he can keep either Williams or Nick Richards on the floor as much as he possibly can.

“Those two guys are traditional centers and you are asking them to do some things on the defensive end of the floor that they haven’t grown up doing,” Clifford said. “So, the quicker that we can get them comfortable doing it the better off we are going to be. Because it’s not just (Friday night). This is (for teams like) Boston where they do it with a traditional center.

“But we have spent more time this year working on normal rotations, and putting the ‘5’ man in different places on the floor. It’s hard. If you watch them as the ball moves they naturally go to protect the rim and it’s an instinct that I see. It is not easy for them. But we have to do it, particularly the pick-and-rolls.”

On the issues when teams go smaller

“When they (the Wizards) downsized (on Wednesday) we really struggled,” Clifford said, “and we spent a lot of time on that these last two days. You want to be able to play with your best guys on the floor and with the guys that we have healthy now, we need to play with a center. PJ (Washington) obviously is good. He’s a good downsized center.

“But what happens is it’s just hard for us to have enough scoring on the floor when he’s there.’ So, it’s not just the matchup part right now with these injuries. We have to be able to play — regardless of who we are playing and what they are trying to do — with our centers out there.”