Hornets' strong defense since Jan. 1 has led to turnaround

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Charlotte Hornets have had the No. 1 scoring defense in the NBA since Jan. 1, a dramatic improvement that has led them on a charge up the Eastern Conference standings.

It has allowed them to go 11-4 in 2015 despite injuries that have kept top players Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson and key reserves Bismack Biyombo and Marvin Williams out of games.

The Hornets are limiting opponents to a league-low 89.4 points per game and 39.7 percent field goal shooting during that span.

Second-year coach Steve Clifford attributes that to a team defense that is ''more tied together'' and playing with more discipline in recent weeks.

''As a group we have realized that is our way to win,'' Clifford said.

Scheduling also could easily be attributed as a factor.

The early part of Charlotte's schedule was loaded with tough Western Conference opponents, while the Hornets have been feasting on some easier Eastern foes in recent weeks.

But there have also been several games where the Hornets have bowed up against tough foes, including a 92-88 win over the Washington Wizards on Monday night.

Clifford concedes that the early stretch was tough but it was compounded by the Hornets simply not play well.

However, that has changed for the Hornets, who have the seventh-best record in the East after a 10-23 start.

''It's a tribute to our group that they have slowly embraced the fact that to win in this league you have to be good at something - and our chance is to be good at defending and rebounding,'' Clifford said. ''And then, how far the offense can go will determine how good we get.''

The Hornets are a surprising 5-1 without Walker, their leading scorer who is out at least six weeks with a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee. Jefferson is just now rounding back into form after a groin injury.

Still, the defense has steadily improved.

The Hornets were 20th in the league in points allowed (100.4) and 24th in opponent's field goal percentage (46.1) in the first 33 games this season.

The 3-point defense, in particular, has been a factor. A team that was allowing opponents to make nearly 37 percent from beyond the arc in 2014, has limited that to 31.9 percent since the turn of the new year.

Forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, one of the team's top defenders, attributed Charlotte's turnaround to a ''trust factor'' not only with each other, but in Clifford's system.

''You can't (count on) offense every night, but you can focus and make sure you're good on defense every night,'' Kidd-Gilchrist said.

Guard Gerald Henderson is quick to point out the Hornets lost a handful of players during the offseason and it has taken time for new players to learn the scheme.

''Chemistry takes time,'' Henderson said. ''Everybody learning their spots and knowing their spots. You go through enough practices and games and guys kind of figure it out.''

Henderson believes the Hornets have a chance to finish the season as the league's top defensive team.

''We have the ability to do that,'' Henderson said. ''We've shown recently the ability to play well consistently on defense. We might have a bad game here or there, but in the past we would go a couple of weeks where we didn't play good defense. Not anymore.''

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