Clifford: Poor defense has led to Hornets' losing streak

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Hornets coach Steve Clifford points to one factor when explaining his team's five-game losing streak - a lack of defense.

Charlotte went 0-5 on its recent road trip, surrendering an uncharacteristic 109.6 points per game during that span. The Hornets return home Wednesday night to face the Portland Trail Blazers, part of a stretch of five-game home stand which Clifford hopes will help turn things around.

But Charlotte's fourth-year coach said nothing will get better until the Hornets start playing better man-to-man defense.

''It starts with our ability to guard our guy,'' Clifford said. ''When you get blown by a lot on the perimeter where you are constantly in need of help, then you are going to give up 3s - and that's what is happening.''

The Hornets raced to a 14-9 start this season and were third-best in the league in points allowed through 23 games.

Since then, things have steadily fallen apart, culminating with Charlotte giving up at least 100 points in eight straight games. The Hornets have since dropped to 12th overall in points allowed.

The Hornets have fallen to 20-21 on the season and are on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoff picture. It hasn't helped that Nic Batum and Cody Zeller have been in and out of the lineup with injury problems, but Charlotte's struggles on the road - where it has lost 11 of its last 13 - is concerning.

Zeller said the Hornets spent Wednesday morning watching cutups of defensive miscues over the last five road games.

''All four years I have been here it starts with defense,'' Zeller said. ''That is what coach Clifford preaches.''

The 7-foot center said it is mostly simple things that can be corrected.

''There are sets that we know are coming - and we just aren't defending them right,'' Zelller said. ''We are making too many mistakes.''

Added guard Marco Belinelli: ''We need to speak a lot more on the court and help each other.''

Getting the defensive mistakes fix won't be easy.

After Portland, the Hornets host Toronto, Brooklyn, Washington and Golden State. All five teams rank in the top 14 in the league in scoring offense, with the Warriors being No. 1 overall and Raptors No. 3.

A year ago, Hornets general manager Rich Cho pulled off a quality late-season trade, landing ''three and D'' guard Courtney Lee. He proved to be the driving force on the team's playoff run and played well in the postseason.

The problem was Lee did so well it made it impossible for the Hornets to re-sign him. Charlotte re-signed Batum and Marvin Williams, and let Lee walk in free agency. He signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the New York Knicks.

The Hornets figured with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist returning this year from a shoulder injury they would be fine defensively, but the struggles are mounting.

Clifford wouldn't discuss whether the team needs to make a similar trade before the NBA deadline.

As for the offense, Clifford likes what he sees.

Kemba Walker, a first-time All-Star candidate, is in the midst of the most productive season of his career, averaging 23 points per game while shooting 41.3 percent from 3-point range.

''I mean he's having a great year,'' Clifford said. ''He's worked really hard and it's paying off for him.''

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