From being one win away from pretty much historic qualification to an embarrassing game 7 exit. Steve Clifford orchestrated an embarrassing finish to an otherwise good season for the Charlotte Hornets, ignoring the obvious choice, Jeremy Lin, and sinking down with guns barely firing, giving Kemba Walker too much freedom when he’s at his worst. The result? The Miami Heat moving on to the next round, winning 106-73.
And Clifford. Trying to summarize how Clifford failed the organization and his players in the biggest game this franchise has had since the Bobcats were born, and dating back to 2002 if you include the Charlotte Hornets history before the move to New Orleans, it comes down to this: Clifford forgot what won him three games after going 0-2 to open the series. As if everything that happened since the playoffs began didn’t mean anything. As if Nicolas Batum isn’t playing injured so Clifford gave him too many minutes without rest. As if Walker going cold right off the start wasn’t a sign to try something different. In his moment of truth, Clifford showed how bad of a head coach he really is, and how afraid he is of trying something different, although that something different had already worked in big games this season.
Jeremy Lin finished with 9 points on 4-for-8 from the field, one rebound and two steals. Box score numbers don’t mean much this time. The Hornets played well during his first stint on the floor, but then he got shelved because Clifford saw something he didn’t like. What? Hard to say. Probably didn’t give Walker the ball on one of the possessions. By the time Lin was re-introduced to the game, it was over. The Heat were too far ahead for anyone to matter. At least Clifford got his wish, and the team played the kind of basketball he loves to see. The vanguard of his basketball philosophy, Walker, shot 3-for-16 from the field in another “moment of truth” for someone on this team. As we mentioned a number of time during this series: The Heat were begging for the Hornets to play this way. And they did, despite everything that happened in this series.
The result? Charlotte scoring only 73 points in a do or die game, shooting 32.1% from the field. Frank Kaminsky took 15 shots (making just three of them). Al Jefferson was 2-for-7 from the field. Marvin Williams, dealing with an injury all series, or perhaps simply fading into the background on offense, took just three shots all game long. Courtney Lee was actually accurate. Why didn’t we see more of Lin, Lee and Cody Zeller on the floor? Clifford has the answers. For some reason he thought the reason this series swung his way was that trick of playing two big men in the lineup. More size helped, but the minutes with Lin on the floor and trying to move away from the Walker-Jefferson approach that Clifford so desperately clings to, were the biggest part of the Hornets taking a lead in the series against all odds.
But that seems like years ago. Lin didn’t play well in game 6, and it doesn’t matter if it was his ankle or not. And without him playing well and/or Clifford not believing he’s the Hornets most important players in this series, momentum went back into the Heat’s hands. And that pretty much is the sunset of this season for the Hornets, who have a lot of decisions to make this offseason about re-signing players while dreaming of a top-notch free agent coming their way.
Maybe it was going to end badly anyway with injuries constantly nibbling at this team’s edges, making its way towards the heart. But there’s still a way to go down, and Clifford took the wrong one. The scared one. The conservative, unimaginative, uncreative, foolish one. If I had a thesaurus next to me this could go on for days. If Michael Jordan is hoping that this franchise becomes synonymous with success and actually makes it past the first round in the NBA playoffs in the near future, this Clifford-Walker tandem leading the way isn’t how it’s going to get done.
And Lin? Strange things happen. Maybe he gets convinced that staying in Charlotte is the best thing for his career. But from every indication he got from the coaching staff this season, someone as good as him shouldn’t settle for being a backup to Walker while playing for a head coach who doesn’t appreciate him. Lin showed his worth in almost every big game the Hornets had this season. That has to raise the right kind of flag for the right kind of team, looking for a point guard to lead them. Hopefully for him, his next team is one that he stays on for more than one year.