Coach James Borrego’s Charlotte Hornets’ rotations are the big box of crayons: There can’t be many colors left he hasn’t tried.
Friday night’s derivation was playing the three point guards - Kemba Walker, Tony Parker and second-round rookie Devonte Graham - together for a brief span of the fourth quarter. The incentive for this was Borrego looking for a countermeasure to the series of zone defenses his team has faced of late.
“When teams don’t feel they can guard us man-to-man, they zone us,” Borrego said following a 100-87 home victory over the Brooklyn Nets. “I think our guys are continuing to get better (in offense against the zone). We got better shots tonight. If that’s what it takes for us to move forward, we’re comfortable playing against zone.”
That hasn’t always been true. The Hornets blew a 21-point lead at home against the New York Knicks Dec. 14 when Knicks coach David Fizdale mucked up the game at halftime, playing an abundance of zone. The Hornets looked so rattled by that strategy that other teams keep throwing it in as a wrinkle against them.
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Wednesday in Brooklyn the Nets played multiple zones, including a box-and-one intended to separate Hornets star Kemba Walker from his teammates late in a two-overtime Nets victory. So it was no surprise Friday, after the Nets trailed by as much as 20 in the first half, that coach Kenny Atkinson again went to zone.
Borrego dislikes being reactionary to what opposing coaches do, but the Nets’ success with that zone clearly impacted Borrego’s rotation decisions. First-round rookie Miles Bridges played just three minutes Friday, and Borrego acknowledged Bridges’ limited court time was about them having to find other players to beat that zone.
So Graham, chosen early in the second round, got five minutes mostly in the fourth quarter in a small lineup intended to add shooting and ballhandling.
“They were playing zone and we needed shooting out there. I like Devonte, I think he can make shots,” Borrego said. “We’ll keep looking at Devonte if teams want to continue to zone.”
Teams will play zone until the Hornets consistently prove they can beat it. Friday’s fourth quarter was a step in that direction when the Hornets made 11 of 19 shots from the field. Borrego played Parker with Walker most of the final quarter and used Marvin Williams at center and Nic Batum at power forward late, which augmented the outside shooting and ball movement.
Point guard options
The Hornets have used 36-year-old Parker in a lot of minutes this season. It was 23 Friday, when the expectation was he’d average around 15. Parker said post-game he wouldn’t play Saturday in Washington against the Wizard. In fact, the plan was for him not to even fly up to Washington.
That’s the second time this season Parker will be inactive for the second game on back-to-back nights. The first was Oct. 27 in Philadelphia. That night Graham, just seven games into his NBA career, played 19 minutes and finished with seven points and two assists against the 76ers.
Second-round picks haven’t succeeded much in Charlotte since the NBA came back in 2004, but Graham isn’t a typical second-rounder. He played four seasons at Kansas, so he saw and learned a lot about high-stakes basketball before June’s draft. The Hornets made a trade with the Atlanta Hawks to get into the early second round to grab Graham, and he looks like a keeper.
“He’s growing every day,” Borrego said. “His development is good. He had a very good game last night (with the G-League Greensboro Swarm, scoring 30 points).
“I trust him. I believe in him.”
‘Be on your toes’
The biggest impression Borrego has made in his first season as Hornets coach is how improvisational he can be. All 14 of the players on guaranteed contract have played multiple games of significant minutes. At 17-17 the Hornets are seven games away from the season’s midpoint and there is no indication of a set rotation.
This is in part a function of Borrego’s NBA upbringing with the San Antonio Spurs. If nothing else, it leaves no excuse for players to lose their focus when they haven’t played in a few games.
“We know we’ve got to be ready for whatever,” said Graham, who had played in two of the prior seven games. “He says that all the time; you’ve got to be ready all the time no matter what position you are at. You’ve got to know the plays and be aggressive when you’re out there.
“You’ve definitely got to be on your toes, be ready.”
I asked Williams, in his 14th NBA season, if he’s ever played for a coach with so many different lineups. Williams said not even close.
“I don’t know how he comes up with it. He’ll put guys out there who we haven’t even practiced with before in that lineup,” Wllliams said. “But that means as professionals he trusts us. You’re supposed to know what to do whenever your number is called, no matter who you are out there with.”
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But Williams is very right about one thing:
There is now no excuse this season for a Hornet being unprepared to play. Ever.