Court Vision: Hornets blowout Timberwolves to continue hot stretch

The defense stood tall for the Charlotte Hornets in their 105-80 win over the Timberwolves, their seventh win in the past eight games.

1. JEFFERSON MAKES SURPRISE RETURN

Outside of the win, the most important aspect of Monday afternoon’s game was the sudden and surprise return of Hornets All-Pro center Al Jefferson, who has been out since Dec. 31, with a left groin strain.

Jefferson’s return truly did catch Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford by surprise.

"It is kind of out of nowhere, to be honest, but the doctors cleared him (Sunday)," Clifford said. "From a conditional level, he won’t be able to withstand a lot of minutes, so he’ll play as the backup."

Jefferson played 25 minutes, scoring eight points on 4 of 11 shooting and grabbing five rebounds.

"I haven’t had any pain in my groin for about a week," Jefferson said.

Because there isn’t a lot of time to practice and get acclimated to playing again, Clifford has no choice but to play Jefferson immediately.

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"If we don’t do it this way and I wait until he can really have contact in practice, he wouldn’t play (for 10 days)," he said. "To me, it makes more sense to throw him in there now and see what he can handle physically and then go from there."

Jefferson said he should be back to his old self conditioning wise by Friday’s game at Cleveland.

2. DEFENSE CONTINUES TO GET BETTER

The main reason the Charlotte went to the playoffs last season was because it was one of the better defensive teams in the league. The first couple of months this year were a struggle, but lately the defense has been nearly as good as last season’s.

"I think it’s close," Clifford said. "The progress those guys have made is significant."

The Hornets (17-25) now have held opponents to fewer than 100 points a league-high nine straight times. Moreover, they’ve held their opponents to 22 points or less in 10 of the last 12 quarters. In their previous outing, the Hornets even set a record in their overtime in against Indiana, when they held the Pacers to just 71 points, which is the fewest points scored by a team in an overtime game in the shot-clock era.

Many have wondered why it took so long for the defense to catch up to last year’s level. That’s because, like last season when it was brand new to the entire team in Clifford’s first year, there are so many first-year players in the system that it’s as though the team re-started from scratch.

That and the fact that there have been so many injuries and a consistent lineup hasn’t been available.

"They are one of the top defensive teams in the league," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said. "Even when their record is bad, they are always going to guard."

3. INJURIES DO HAVE A SILVER LINING

No coach wants to have to go through the rash of injuries like the Hornets have endured this season. Even so, here they stand poised to make the playoffs.

Point guard Kemba Walker has missed the last two games, Jefferson missed nine before Monday and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Lance Stephenson have each has missed 14 games. All told, that’s 39 combined games missed from the starters. But what has happened is reserve players like point guard Brian Roberts and center Bismack Biyombo have seen increased minutes, and as a result have seen their play improve.

"I haven’t felt any more pressure, but with the way Kemba’s been playing, those are some big shoes to fill," said Roberts, who scored 16 points and handed out five assists against Minnesota. "But I’m not Kemba. I’m just going to go out and play my game."

However, Clifford would prefer the normal guys be healthy just so he can figure out exactly what he has from an entire team aspect.

"You need everyone on the team, so we have to get to a place where everyone knows what their role is," he said. "With all of the injuries, we haven’t been able to get there. So every night, it won’t be exactly the same. "For example, with San Antonio, they know where they stand. We haven’t gotten there."

27: The number of assists Charlotte had on 40 baskets.

35: The number of combined turnovers the Hornets have forced the last two games.

"I think the more and more we play with our disheveled lineup, guys are learning how to play with each other." — Hornets guard Gerald Henderson