Carolina Panthers

Secret to Hornets’ offensive explosion? This magic number you wouldn’t expect

Charlotte point guard Tony Parker, right, defended by the Phoenix Suns’ Richaun Holmes, had 14 points and four assists in the Hornets 135-115 victory on Saturday.
Charlotte point guard Tony Parker, right, defended by the Phoenix Suns’ Richaun Holmes, had 14 points and four assists in the Hornets 135-115 victory on Saturday. AP

Psssssst.

Listen up — there’s a secret that cannot be protected any longer.

And if you want proof, look no further than the Charlotte Hornets’ 135-115 drubbing of the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night. What transpired at Spectrum Center that night, where the Hornets led from wire-to-wire and eventually tied their season-high points total, was no happy accident or fluke performance.

It was calculated, methodical... but still rare enough to remain a relative secret to most casual observers (and members of the media).

Well, until now.

As Hornets coach James Borrego said post-game, there were a number of factors that played into the team’s overwhelming margin of victory: A lesser opponent (the Suns have the worst record in the Western conference at 11-36), a raucous home crowd and defensive intensity. But he also explained something that doesn’t draw as much common focus, but in looking at the numbers, perfectly explains the team’s offensive outbreak.

“Tonight, 31 assists was a great number for us,” Borrego said. “If we can target and hit that every night, that’s good offense for us.”

Good offense? Given Charlotte’s proficiency Saturday night, you wouldn’t be remiss using a more... apt descriptor. Say, excellent offense, or tremendous offense.

Or even, dare it be said, the Hornets’ best offense.

“We can always get better, but tonight was really good,” said guard Tony Parker, who had four assists. “If we move the ball and we play good defense, we’ll get a chance in every game.”

That’s overly simplistic, of course, but the point is valid.

Charlotte’s best offensive performances all season — 125 against the Magic, 126 against the Cavaliers, 127 points against the Pacers, 135 against the Bulls, and now this — all have that same ball movement in common. And to truly illustrate Borrego’s point, in those games, the Hornets have accrued 29, 29, 30, 30 and 31 assists, respectively.

Reach for that magic number, in the neighborhood of 30 assists, and let the offensive rhythm this team depends on really flow.

Of course, those assist numbers also depend on other things, too. You can’t get assists if teammates don’t knock down open shots, and you won’t get them as easily against more formidable opponents.

But as Borrego explained, in the process of shooting for that number, good offensive habits tend to naturally unearth themselves.

“Even when you’re not making shots,” Borrego said, “you’ve got to continue to trust the ball movement. Making the right play, making the extra pass, and I think we did tonight.”

This emphasis on ball movement and assists is nothing the Hornets haven’t heard before. When Borrego arrived in Charlotte this summer for his first head coaching job, one of the lessons he first installed in his team was an old philosophy from his former team, the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs’ European style of basketball favors constant ball movement, and so Borrego harped on his new squad about the “half-second rule.”

Essentially, that’s the idea that within a half-second of receiving a pass, players should be able to read a defense and decide what they’ll do next: pass, shoot or drive to the basket.

It’s all about getting the best possible shot on any given possession, even if that means ceding a good look for a great one three passes away.

“When I saw two guys, I kicked it. The open man was the next receiver, and if I didn’t like my shot, I moved it to the next guy,” Borrego said. “When the ball moves like that, we’re a very dangerous offense.

“That’s when we’re at our best.”

Even with mostly the same roster as last season, that was an adjustment for this Hornets group early on. Last season, the team funneled a significant portion of its offense through center Dwight Howard. Giving Howard touches in the paint was far from a bad offensive option, but it did stifle ball movement and kept Charlotte’s offense stagnant.

Not anymore.

Six Hornets players had at least three assists Saturday, everyone from Kemba Walker and Parker to center Bismack Biyombo.

Now, Charlotte isn’t exactly setting the league on fire on a daily basis like it did Saturday. The Hornets are ranked 18th out of 30 teams in assists per game with 23.8 per contest. That’s five off the league-leading Golden State Warriors, and actually fewer than the Suns average each night.

But it’s performances like Saturday that illustrate what sorts of good things — excuse me, phenomenal things, exceptional things — happen when the Hornets get near to that magic number.

The trick at this point is replicating that on a night-in, night-out basis, especially as the team prepares for another three-game road streak. And given their perilous position in the Eastern Conference playoff picture — they’re currently the seventh seed — the Hornets don’t have much room to mess around.

So, follow the formula. Now that the secret’s out, lean into it.

Strive for that magic number. Share the ball, each and every night.

With as little breathing room as they have, that’s the Hornets’ best bet for consistent offense.

And like Borrego is quick to point out, that’s when this team is most dangerous.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.

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