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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Hornets (round two) preview with Richie Randall

Getting a little insight about Wednesday’s opponent.

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Philadelphia 76ers v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Moving forward, Liberty Ballers will conduct a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Richie Randall, who covers the Charlotte Hornets for the Blue Wire Podcast network with his podcast, “Buzz Beat.”

How do you think Charlotte will adjust its defense against Joel Embiid in round two?

Embiid has consistently given Charlotte trouble over the years — averaging over 26 points and 12 rebounds for his career. On Monday night, the Hornets played him straight up, tried to throw the occasional double, and mixed in some zone. Regardless of what was thrown at Embiid, it didn’t amount to much.

This sounds simplistic, but James Borrego will continue to try whatever works and ride that strategy until he needs a new one. They’ve got to switch it up continuously.

Physically, Nick Richards is best suited to defend Embiid, but he lacks the experience and lateral quickness to stay with him. PJ Washington will compete down on the block and try his best to keep Embiid out of the paint, but his frame only allows him to do so much. If you try to throw doubles at Embiid, he’s more than capable of making the right read — he finished with a team-high seven assists on Monday. On top of all of that, he had his midrange jumper working and converted 5-of-8 in the long midrange.

Ultimately, there are too many things you have to account for, and lacking the correct personnel in trying to defend him surely doesn’t help.

What do you think worked so well offensively on Monday?

Charlotte loves to get to the hoop and that was evident yet again on Monday night, with 39 shot attempts at the rim. Where it’s struggled for the past several seasons has been the conversion rate. While the Hornets shot just league average within 4 feet in their first matchup, that’s an improvement from where they normally stand on the season.

The Hornets have a variety of ways in which they can get to the rim. They can employ Miles Bridges as the ball-handler to beat his man off the bounce, use PJ Washington on a slip for an open runway, or Charlotte will find an edge in transition.

The inside-out game suits this team well and when it can convert in the paint, it opens up its outside game. On Monday, the Hornets outscored the Sixers 58-46 in the paint. The hope would be that they convert more from the outside, as they hit on just 35 percent of their long-range attempts.

What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this game, based on Monday’s outing?

All things considered, you have to be proud of the Hornets’ effort on Monday night. Philadelphia hadn’t played since Friday and was waiting for the Hornets to arrive back home from Atlanta. Charlotte was playing on a back-to-back and just added Ish Smith to the running list of players out due to health and safety protocols. But nobody cares about moral victories and this situation will all be forgotten in several weeks.

Having said that, Wednesday should be a fairer fight when it comes to rest and energy. Charlotte is still missing LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier, among others, but I would watch for Charlotte to ignite its transition game a bit more. According to Cleaning the Glass, only 13.7 percent of the Hornets’ possessions started with a transition play in the first meeting.

Charlotte is one of the fastest teams in the NBA and the goal would be to get that number closer to its average of 17 percent. It has the athletes and the youth to achieve this, even with a depleted roster. This team does not want to get into a half-court game with Philadelphia, a place where the Sixers excel.

Beating a team in consecutive games seems like a tough task and one would assume that Charlotte has that on its side. But by the same token, Charlotte is still outmatched and it hasn’t beaten Philadelphia since November 2016.

When healthy, the Hornets have been pretty dang solid this season. What’s clicking for them?

Their offense has been top-notch (fourth league-wide) and really fun to watch. If you’re not watching them on League Pass, what are you doing? (Plus, you get to listen to Eric Collins).

It goes without saying, but everything starts with LaMelo Ball. He’s got to be in the conversation for an All-Star spot and is contributing in so many different ways. His creativity and willingness to try new stuff on the court meshes with the way James Borrego wants to play. Since his hire, this team has played faster, getting out into cutting lanes and even attacking off of makes. Even if Ball doesn’t develop a consistent in-between game in the half-court this season, he can still be Charlotte’s best player.

We’ve also seen another jump with Miles Bridges, becoming much more confident on the ball. With his tighter handle, Borrego can use him to run pick-and-rolls, let him cook in late-clock situations, and get him going downhill. He’s been given a more prominent role this season and his skills are being highlighted even more.

And then, we have the roller-coaster experience of Kelly Oubre. There’s no doubt he’s been streaky, but he’s been very impactful. It’s early, but he’s shooting a career-high from three-point range and doing it on career-high volume (39.4 percent, 7.4 attempts per game). His cutting also fits seamlessly with some of Charlotte’s on-ball creators.

Most metrics have Charlotte among the top three for strength of schedule. It’ll be interesting when the schedule eases up and the team starts the gel, how it can round out both ends of the court.

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

From a player’s perspective, the only answers are Miles Bridges or Cody Martin. For the sake of being decisive, I’ll choose Martin. Objectively, he’s been fairly nonexistent on the offensive end of the court in his first two seasons. He had no outside shot to speak of and his offense was only effective if the defense was bent and having to go through multiple rotations.

Fast-forward to this season and he’s hitting 49 percent of his three-pointers. Sustainable? No, but the Hornets are no longer playing 4 on 5 when he’s on the court. He’s also shown some fearlessness in attacking the rim and a little bit of playmaking, too.

As both a wing and point-of-attack defender, he’s always been a pesky presence on the other end of the court. But because of his expansion on the offensive side of the court, he’s no longer used as a situational player. He’s a mainstay in this Hornets rotation and one of the reasons why lottery rookie James Bouknight is seeing more time in Greensboro.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

It may be obvious by looking at the numbers, but it’s the defense. The team has tried almost everything on that end of the court, but to no avail. The Hornets have stretches where they look awesome, causing havoc and forcing turnovers. But that only lasts so long. The team is consistently in scramble mode and communication is not always where it needs to be. The lack of perimeter defenders and a true rim protector is not a good recipe for success. Like I mentioned earlier, Charlotte just has to continue to switch things up and hope something sticks for periods of the game. This won’t be an overnight fix.