NBA Basketball

Hornets seek to shore up defense in first of two against Cavaliers

The Charlotte Hornets are a guard-heavy team, even with point guard LaMelo Ball lost for the rest of the season with an ankle injury.

Being a little thin in the middle can be a hindrance, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are bound to try to exploit that when the teams meet Sunday in Charlotte, N.C.

After all, Cleveland makes a living at times by being sturdy in the lane and riding its defense.

"We hang our hat on being a tough-minded defensive team," Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said.

The Hornets slipped on their interior defense in Saturday night's 119-111 loss to the Utah Jazz in a game that marked the beginning of a season-long five-game homestand.

"Our rim protection was nothing at all," Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. "We've been playing better defensively because that has not been happening. We weren't even close. Not close with our talk. You make mistakes with good players and they're going to be at the rim, and that's what happened."

The Cavaliers and Hornets also will meet Tuesday night on the same court. It's a strange segment of the season for Cleveland, which played back-to-back games at Miami on Wednesday and Friday nights.

"I think it's great preparation for us for where we are right now," Bickerstaff said of facing the same teams in consecutive games. ... "Obviously, we have a long way to go and have to keep taking care of our business."

Cleveland split those games in Miami, falling 119-115 in the rematch Friday to end a three-game winning streak.

"We could have been better in some of those (late-game) moments," Bickerstaff said. "It's hard to survive that offensive performance they put on in the fourth."

These will be important games in Charlotte for the Cavaliers, as they want to stay on target for the postseason. They enter play Sunday fourth in the Eastern Conference, while the Hornets are close to being eliminated from playoff conention.

Certainly, part of the challenge from the Charlotte viewpoint will come in shoring up defensively.

"We lacked physicality, didn't have the same mentality," Clifford said. "You can't play like that."

Cleveland guard Donovan Mitchell has reached the 40-point mark in three of the past five games.

"He was carrying us," Bickerstaff said of Mitchell's performance in Miami. "I thought he did a great job of doing that. It wasn't easy against a really good defensive team that was keyed to stopping him."

Bickerstaff said flexibility in lineups has been crucial for the Cavaliers.

Cleveland's Darius Garland was out for Friday night's game with a quad injury, and his status might be uncertain for Sunday. He is listed as questionable on the injury report. Caris LeVert moved into the starting lineup and scored 16 points.

"Everybody has to pick up a little bit," Bickerstaff said. "There's not one guy who's going to fill in and take up Darius' production."

Kelly Oubre Jr., who has moved back into the Charlotte starting lineup, has led the Hornets in scoring in six consecutive games. He had 24 points against the Jazz.

The Hornets are 2-4 in March. They lost Saturday night after coming off road victories against the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons.

The Cavs and Hornets will meet again April 9 in the regular-season finale at Cleveland.

--Field Level Media

Updated March 12, 2023

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