Zone defenses aren’t common in the NBA, but the way the Charlotte Hornets responded to one Friday, you’d have thought they were still against the rules.
What a mess the Hornets created for themselves: Right when it looked like they had figured something out with a three-game winning streak, they blew a 21-point lead and fell to the New York Knicks in overtime 126-124 at Spectrum Center.
Credit to the Knicks for sticking in this one when they were down to nine players healthy enough to participate. But the Hornets threw this away with 16 turnovers, leading to 28 Knicks points.
Turnovers should be the last thing to beat the Hornets this season. Entering this game, they averaged the fewest turnovers in the NBA (12.15) and had the best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.68). Still, they became utterly discombobulated in the second half by zone.
“We were kind of lost on offense because we really didn’t face zone defense this (season),” said forward Nic Batum, who finished with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds. “We didn’t face zone defense for 29 minutes, like we did in the second half, so we better work on it.”
The contrast between the first and second halves was absurd. The Hornets shot 63 percent from the field and 60 percent from 3-point range (12-of-20) before halftime and led 72-53 during the break.
That’s when Knicks coach David Fixdale decided to muck it up by going to a zone. Desperation was inspiration, and the Hornets were all lost in translation: In the second half and overtime, they shot 36 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3-point range.
They were outscored 73-52 after halftime and the turnover margin was absurd: seven Hornets turnovers to three by the Knicks. The points scored off opponent turnovers: 13 for the Knicks to two for the Hornets.
This is a Knicks team that is 9-21, playing the season without star Kristaps Porzingis, and was down to nine bodies when reserve center Mitchell Robinson sprained his ankle in the first half. The Knicks have all but acknowledged they are marking time the rest of the season, developing the kids and hoping for a good lottery pick.
If the 14-14 Hornets don’t manage leads better than this, they still might join the Knicks in that lottery. This was the largest blown lead in a Hornets loss since they dropped a game to the Indiana Pacers in February of 2015. It’s not crazy to lose a game you once led by 21, but it’s perplexing when you add in factors that the Hornets were at home and playing a team they beat with ease Sunday in New York.
This wasn’t complacency; they jumped out early, taking a 33-16 lead at the end of the first quarter. Rather, it looked like confusion and panic.
“Even early we had a couple that kept them in the game,” coach James Borrego said of the turnovers, five short of matching a season high. “There were a couple out of the (Knicks’) zone. Unfamiliar with the spacing (against) the zone because we haven’t played against a zone a whole lot.
“We just didn’t take care of the ball tonight and it led to too many easy baskets for them.”
Former Hornets coach Larry Brown used to say not all turnovers count the same - that losing possession in a dead-ball situation where you get to set up your defense is one thing, but open-court giveaways are far worse. So many of these turnovers Friday were the latter.
Playing offense against a zone might be new to this Hornets team, but playing down to bad teams isn’t. A glance at the Eastern Conference standings post-game was troubling.
They have now lost to the bottom four teams in the East: The Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls. None of those teams has yet reached 10 victories and there’s little hope any of them could compete for the playoffs.
At least the prior three such losses were on the road. This loss makes them 10-6 at Spectrum Center with the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James playing in Charlotte Saturday.
This was the second of five consecutive home games in what is a crucial month; by the end of December, the Hornets will have already used up half their home games.
Borrego has said repeatedly this team’s margin for error is small. That obligates them to play smart and precise.
As in don’t react to a zone like it was just invented on the back of a halftime box score.