Recap: Hornets drubbed by Celtics in preseason finale

The Charlotte Hornets struggled out of the gates and were unable to mount a comeback, falling to the Boston Celtics in both teams’ preseason finale, 127-99.

The Hornets just never stood a chance in this one. LaMelo Ball found Mark Williams for a layup to put Charlotte up 2-0 on the opening possession, and it was all Boston from there onward. A 25-7 run helped put the Celtics ahead by 15 points at the end of the first quarter, and by halftime Charlotte’s deficit had ballooned to 26 points. The closest the Hornets got after that was when they trailed by 21, 84-63, late in the third quarter. Boston stretched the lead to 40 points for a portion of the fourth. It never even approached resembling close game.

The good

Let’s start with the positives; though, there are never many that come from a 28-point loss, even in the preseason. On that note, why don’t we just wrap up our overarching thoughts on the whole 2023-24 preseason?

My biggest takeaway from the preseason is that Charlotte’s starting unit is going to be competitive. LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, PJ Washington and Mark Williams all look to have improved in certain areas from last season.

In the case of Ball, the efficiency hasn’t been there, but he looks noticeably more comfortable and aggressive in attacking the rim. Ball is finishing at a 64.3% clip within 5 feet of the basket in the preseason, a 13.1% improvement from his 51.2% mark last year. He’s made plenty of strong drives where he takes or initiates contact and withstands it through the finish. If he doesn’t add more weight or strength, seeking out contact, drawing free throws and utilizing his other-worldly touch will help counteract that. The LaMelo we’ve seen in the last few seasons probably doesn’t complete the and-one on Kristaps Porziņģis that we saw last night.

Rozier is a similar case to Ball, where the 3-point shooting hasn’t caught up to the inside-the-arc efficiency yet. Rozier has also handled secondary initiator duties admirably, compiling a 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio in the preseason playing staggered minutes with Ball. I actually thought he played with great pace, defensive effort and got on and off the ball in the right spots against Boston, but the 0-5 mark from deep tanks it a bit.

The elder statesman of the Hornets’ locker room only played in two of the four preseason games, but looked every bit of his old self. Hayward finished the preseason shooting 60% from the field (9-16 FG), totaled 8 rebounds in 48 minutes played and demonstrated the same use of strength and smarts on defense that catapulted the Hornets into the top-10 on that end to close out the 2022-23 season. As always, he’s going to be a crucial piece to the team’s success when he’s on the court.

An explosive 31-point outing against the Thunder bolstered Washington’s efficiency; like every other shooter on the Hornets, the threes were not falling in the preseason. That will come in time, not only for Washington but for all of the scorers. Most of Charlotte’s veterans have a long-standing track record of shooting the leather off the ball. Washington did balance out a sub-30% mark from distance by shooting 59.3% inside the arc. That was a common theme among Hornets starters; inefficient from three, but once the ball touched the paint, good things happened.

Speaking of getting the ball into the paint… Mark Williams looks awesome. The second-year big man tallied 8 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists against the Celtics, and though he looked outmatched by the 7-foot-3 flamethrower in Porziņģis, the speed at which he processes the game as a short-roll and low-post passer, screener and scheme-versatile anchor has taken a huge jump despite him having a cast on his hand all summer. In a recent appearance on Michael Scotto’s HoopsHype podcast, Steve Clifford stated it’s more a matter of when, not if, Williams expands his shooting range beyond the arc. A full season of the Ball-Williams pairing could prove quite fruitful for Hornets fans.

Last, but certainly not least, the rookie Brandon Miller. Despite a ghastly 7.7% 3-point shooting mark, I came away encouraged by the No. 2 overall pick after his first taste of NBA action. Miller shot 54.2% from 2-point range and showed remarkable poise, smoothness and fluidity in his in-between game for a 20-year-old. He has legit utility as a secondary playmaker and looks comfortable operating the pick-and-roll, even in tight quarters. It may take a bit for the shooting to come around as he adjusts to the speed, physicality and spacing of the NBA, so he’ll have to make hay from the paint in the meantime. I don’t think that’ll be much of an issue.

The bad

The second unit… nothing in specific, either. Just the entire thing.

The guard-less bench unit of Frank Ntilikina, Miller, JT Thor and Nick Richards has struggled mightily to create offense. When Ball or Rozier sit, and especially when both sit, the pace and spacing fall through the floor. Ntilikina isn’t a point guard at this stage of his career and the defensive playmaking doesn’t seem to make up for it — to boot, he also hyperextended his knee in the finale and may be unavailable for the time being.

Tasking Miller with initiator duties as the third guard right out of the gates is unlikely to yield immediate results. Thor and Richards, both capable play-finishers with the size and athleticism Clifford likes to deploy in the frontcourt, can’t be expected to contribute offensively with no one to feed them scoring opportunities. The only hope for a playoff-caliber, organized bench unit is Cody Martin returning from injury at full-strength and Miller functioning as the secondary playmaker right off the bat. That seems like a far cry at this point.

It doesn’t help that multiple non-rotation players are injured right now. James Bouknight and Bryce McGowens would be on the cusp of consistent minutes as guards that can get a bucket, stretch the defense and semi-occasionally create for others, but both are sidelined.

Théo Maledon would help set the table for the second unit, but a shoulder injury kept him out the entire preseason. Being on a Two-Way contract limits his availability to 50 games played this season, anyways. If the Hornets are counting on Maledon to be the de facto third guard once healthy, converting him to a standard NBA contract would be wise. It makes little sense to have a Two-Way player in the rotation at the start of the season when the 15-man roster is full.

Let’s touch on Miller’s shooting again to round this out. My main concern with him as a prospect was the translation of his burst, quickness and ability to separate. I definitely overestimated the impact it’d have on his mid-range game, as the adequate length and lift he gets on his pull-up creates that space to get his shot off vertically rather than laterally. However, it might affect his deep-range shooting more than I’d thought.

Creating space off the dribble is difficult enough in the NBA, where the court is spaced out and defenders are longer, stronger and more athletic than in college basketball. Miller does currently lack elite an first-step and lateral movement, and I might have underestimated how difficult the looks he gets off the dribble from distance will be. The catch-and-shoot jumper will come in time, but it might take longer adjust to the pressure NBA defenses will put on him as a perimeter scoring threat.

Five days until we get to see this team for real. The Hornets open the 2023-24 season at home against the Atlanta Hawks on October 25 at 7:00 PM EST.

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