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Past relationship could boost Hornets

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FILE - In this Sept. 25, 2017, file photo, Charlotte Hornets' Dwight Howard poses for a photo during the NBA basketball team's media day in Charlotte, N.C. Coach Steve Clifford is hoping the Hornets can regain their swagger on defense, and believes rim protecteor Dwight Howard can be a big part of that. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

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By STEVE REED
As­so­ci­ated Press

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

CHARLOTTE — Dwight Howard is hoping a reunion with coach Steve Clifford in Charlotte will rejuvenate his NBA career.

Clifford is hoping the reunion rejuvenates the Hornets’ struggling defense.

Regardless of what happens, Howard’s arrival in Charlotte will go a long way toward determining whether the Hornets can rebound from a disappointing 36-46 season and reach the playoffs for the third time in five years.

“It was fate for us to be back together,” said Howard, an eight-time NBA All-Star and three-time defensive player of the year. “I think we know each other so well. He understands me. He knows how passionate I am about winning and helping my teammates.”

Howard spent six season working under Clifford, then an assistant coach, with the Magic and Lakers and there’s an undeniable respect between them.

So Clifford is willing to overlook two rough seasons in Houston and Atlanta where Howard was criticized for his play and being a locker room distraction.

“I know what he has to do to play well,” Clifford said after the Hawks traded Howard one year into a three-year, $70.5 million contract. “He understands that I know him. I know his game. Being around him in different settings I have a feel for what he likes to do. ... There is no reason he can’t get back to playing at a really high level.”

Clifford said his goal is for the Hornets to finish in the top five on defense in the league and in the top 10 on offense.

The Hornets struggled defensively last season, particularly late in games. But Howard gives them a rim protector they’ve never had during the Clifford era. Clifford said he still considers Howard an “elite basket protector and elite shot blocker.”

Clifford said the Hornets have been working hard in training camp on re-establishing a defensive toughness, something that was noticeably absent last year.

“We have to get our defensive ego back where guys are more determined to keep the ball in front of them,” Clifford said. “.... We weren’t as discipline and we didn’t guard the ball 1-on-1 nearly as well as need to last year.”

REPLACING BATUM: Nic Batum will not need surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left elbow, but will still miss six to eight weeks to start the season while rehabbing. That’s a huge blow for the Hornets because Batum was expected to play a pivotal role in the pick and roll game with Howard. Charlotte will turn to Jeremy Lamb as its starting shooting guard.

ZELLER’S NEW ROLE: Center Cody Zeller said it doesn’t bother him going from two-year starter to a bench role if it means the Hornets will be a better team. “I have always been a team guy and I think Dwight is going to help our team,” Zeller said. “... If they want me to will hand out water bottles, I will.” Clifford is excited about what Zeller can accomplish working with the second team. “So you are not only getting a front-line starter,” the coach said, “but you are taking a position where we struggled (at second team center) and it should be a position of great strength.”

WALKER’S ENCORE: Kemba Walker averaged a career-high 23.2 points per game and established personal best in field goal percentage (44.3 percent) and 3-point shooting (39.9 percent). For an encore, Walker said, “The biggest thing for me and all my guys is making the playoffs, really. That’s what we’re playing for.”

MONK A STEAL: With Lamb having to step into a starting role, rookie Malik Monk’s learning curve could be accelerated as the No. 2 shooting guard. Walker said the Hornets getting Monk with the 11th overall pick is a steal. .

CARTER-WILLIAMS INJURY: The Hornets brought in Michael-Carter Williams to backup Walker at point guard, but he won’t be ready in time for the regular season opener because of a lingering knee issue.

More NBA basketball: https://​apnews.com/​tag/​NBAbasketball

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