How Charlotte Hornets will alter routines, not strategy, in grueling playoffs pursuit

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Rick Bonnell
·7 min read
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If you’re a Charlotte Hornets fan expecting big changes the second half of this NBA season, forget about it.

Coach James Borrego says survival in the remaining three months means less is more. Complication is a negative in this season of COVID-19.

“We’ve got to keep it simple,” Borrego said. “Simplify what we’re doing, and just do it harder and more aggressively.

“I’m not going to try to add more (to the playbook). We’re going to do what we do, be what we are.”

The Hornets are in a much-needed break of seven days around Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game. They are mentally and physically worn, and need to heal. Three of Charlotte’s top eight players — P.J. Washington, Cody Zeller and Devonte Graham — were out with injuries by the end of Wednesday’s road victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

With a 17-18 record, the Hornets are on pace to break a four-season streak without a playoff appearance. However, this is the third-youngest roster in the NBA and teams are bunched so closely in the standings that the distance between fifth and 10th in the Eastern Conference is two games.

Variables this season are unprecedented:

The obvious perils of the pandemic, which require NBA players to be tested twice daily.

The crush of games, particularly after the break, when Charlotte will play 37 in the span of 67 days.

The constant rotation changes — not just from typical injuries, but from positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing.

Hornets forward Gordon Hayward, in his 11th NBA season, says the only thing he can compare this year to was the lockout in 2011, which resulted in a 66-game season crammed into 17 weeks.

“That was a condensed season and we had back-to-back-to-back (games). But this is going to be a (different sort of) gauntlet. We’re going to have to be as fresh as we can,” Hayward said.

“More than ever, it’s got to be ‘on to the next game,’ whether it be a victory or a defeat. There’s no time to dwell.”

The difference between a lockout and this circumstance is that the pandemic continues to impact the league and the world at large. By NBA rule, players are mostly sequestered both at home and on the road. Testing, to avoid infection spread, causes players to get up earlier each morning and then often have to return to Spectrum Center at night for another round of tests.

Hayward appreciates the intent. The tests keep him and teammates safer, but he said what is normally the end of a workday — a chance to be with family and unwind — is when he now drives back to the arena for yet another test.

Borrego understands how all that adds to physical and mental wear. So he’s already reworked routines.

Hornets practice? What’s that?

The shift toward a scaled-down approach started during the Hornets’ six-game West Coast trip, which they completed 3-3. Three of the four off days, there was no formal practice, only optional workouts for players outside the rotation. Also, what previously would have been a gameday-morning shootaround at the arena became a walk-through in a hotel ballroom.

Even film study is being trimmed at the suggestion of Borrego’s staff.

“My (assistants) are all over me right now: ‘You can’t do too much. We can’t have hour-long film sessions.’ It’s just too much for the guys right now,” Borrego described.

“There is a mental grind, a physical grind — not only for us, but for everybody in the pandemic. This is mental health right now that we’ve got to get through.”

So those waiting for Borrego to junk his zone defense for some other strategy or install a slew of new out-of-bounds plays should adjust expectation. What teaching time remains will focus on refining what’s there, not introducing new concepts.

“I want to teach, I want to coach,” Borrego said. “I want these guys to grow and develop, but” the window for that isn’t there the rest of the season.

Charlotte goals: Be flexible, communicate

Borrego keeps reminding his player in all this chaos, “Be where your feet are: Be present where we’re at.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of distractions, a lot of disruptions every single week,” Borrego described. “Be present in those two hours (of a game). Give it your best. Stay focused. Do your job.”

A playoff race is new to most of these guys. Washington, Graham, LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges and Malik Monk have never been to the postseason.

Borrego will lean on Hayward and Terry Rozier, who went through long playoff runs with the Boston Celtics, for leadership. There are traits this team has already formed that can help: They are the NBA’s best team in clutch time and Borrego is constantly impressed by their effort and togetherness.

Borrego expects to play a deeper rotation at times the rest of the way to navigate the packed schedule. The Hornets have only two instances the rest of the way of back-to-back days off.

“I can’t use eight or 8 1/2 guys a night,” Borrego said. “I’m going to have to do it with nine consistently and some nights 10 on back-to-backs.”

He tells the players they must communicate honestly with the coaches when they feel fatigued or are injured. That’s not always the nature of competitive people, but it’s essential the rest of the way.

That’s particularly true with rookie Ball, who now averages 29 minutes per game.

“We have a 19-year-old rookie who’s never been through this before,” Borrego said. “I’ve got to be aware of that — that we have a very young team that’s going to be put through the grinder.”

Borrego wants players to police themselves more, and not always make that the coaches’ job.

“Ask more of themselves,” Borrego said. “Ask more of each other.”

Rozier is the obvious conduit for that. He set the bar in a nine-month off-season, showing up for training camp 15 pounds lighter than the season before.

Rozier said Wednesday he’d set a tone by taking only a couple of days completely off during All-Star break. And he’ll be pushing teammates to do the same.

“I’ll make sure they’re with me,” Rozier said of gym time, “doing what they need to do.”

Charlotte Hornets 2021 NBA schedule

Home games in all caps. National TV games noted. All times Eastern.

MARCH

3/11 DETROIT 7 pm

3/13 TORONTO 7 pm

3/15 SACRAMENTO 7 pm

3/17 at Denver 9 pm

3/18 at L.A. Lakers 10:30 pm (NBATV)

3/20 at L.A. Clippers 10 pm

3/22 at San Antonio 8:30 pm

3/24 at Houston 8 pm

3/26 MIAMI 8 pm

3/28 PHOENIX 1 pm

3/30 at Washington 7 pm

APRIL

4/1 at Brooklyn 7:30 pm (TNT)

4/2 at Indiana 8 pm

4/4 at Boston 6 pm

4/7 at Oklahoma City 8 pm

4/9 at Milwaukee 9 pm

4/11 ATLANTA 1 pm

4/13 L.A. LAKERS 8 pm

4/14 CLEVELAND 7 pm

4/16 at Brooklyn 7 pm

4/18 PORTLAND 7 pm

4/20 at New York 7:30 pm

4/22 at Chicago 9 pm

4/23 CLEVELAND 8 pm

4/25 BOSTON 1 pm (ESPN)

4/27 MILWAUKEE 7 pm (NBATV)

4/28 at Boston 7:30 pm

MAY

5/1 DETROIT 7 pm

5/2 MIAMI 8 pm

5/4 at Detroit 7 pm

5/6 CHICAGO 7 pm

5/7 ORLANDO 8 pm

5/9 NEW ORLEANS 7 pm (NBATV)

5/11 DENVER 7 pm

5/13 L.A. CLIPPERS 7 pm

5/15 at New York TBD

5/16 at Washington TBD