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Hornets coach Clifford back on bench versus Wizards

Coach Steve Clifford returns to the bench Wednesday night after a five-week absence when the Charlotte Hornets host the Washington Wizards.

Clifford, who left the team early last month because of stress-related headaches, was back on the court Tuesday, leading his first practice.

The 56-year-old, fifth-year coach is aware of the Hornets' predicament. Charlotte is 17-25 and facing a serious uphill climb to get back into playoff contention.

But Clifford assured Tuesday that he's been paying attention and has identified areas of needed improvement.

"We have to find two or three things at both ends of the floor that can make a difference so we can make progress," he observed. "The thing that stands out for our team would be shot-making. We're 29th (among 30 NBA teams) in two-point percentage and 21st in 3-point percentage."

Both of those stats got a boost Monday when the Hornets made a one-day trip to Detroit and surprised the Pistons 118-107. The Hornets shot 51.2 percent overall and 45.5 percent on 3s.

Dwight Howard did the most to inflate the overall percentage, hitting nine of his 12 shots en route to 21 points. He'd had three 3-for-10 games as well as a 1-for-9 and a 2-for-9 in his previous 13 contests.

Clifford's return will come against a team the Hornets beat while he was still coaching in November -- the Washington Wizards.

Howard made 10 of 13 shots that night, contributing 26 points to a 129-124 home victory in overtime.

The Wizards responded well to that loss. They went 11-6 in December to solidify their playoff positioning, and have opened January with four wins in seven games.

Washington, however, did not take full advantage of a just completed, five-game homestand, losing three of five, including 104-95 to Milwaukee on Monday.

The Charlotte visit tips off a five-game trip.

"We just have to get focused for this five-game road trip," Wizards forward Otto Porter insisted after the Milwaukee loss. "We're definitely going to go back to the drawing board and work out what we need to do to continue to protect the ball and not turn it over."

The Wizards had 24 turnovers in the loss. Bradley Beal suffered seven of the miscues.

Taking better control of the ball against the Hornets shouldn't be a problem.

First off, the Wizards, despite Monday's spike in the numbers, have averaged only 14.2 turnovers per game, the 11th-best mark in the NBA.

The Hornets, meanwhile, have forced only 13.8 turnovers per game, the fifth-lowest figure in the league.

Turnovers weren't an issue in the earlier meeting, when the Wizards gave up the ball only 12 times.

Rather, Washington's inability to prevent Charlotte from putting up its second-highest point total of the season on 47.3-percent shooting led to the club's downfall.

Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb complemented the interior force of Howard with accurate long-range shooting in the win. Both tallied 24 points and had three 3-pointers, with Walker shooting 8-for-22 overall and Lamb 9-for-17.

The poor defense proved too big an obstacle for the visitors to overcome, even with the Wizards' John Wall leading all scorers with 31 points and Beal adding 22.

Updated January 16, 2018

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