By Dave McMenamin, NBA.com
Posted Apr 16 2009 11:13AM
Last season the Hornets were the No. 2 seed and were a game away from making it to the Western Conference finals while the Nuggets were swept out of the Playoffs as the lowly eighth seed. This time around, Denver will be favored to advance as the higher seed and New Orleans will be the group with upset on the mind.
The Nuggets are a vastly different team, thanks to the addition of Chauncey Billups, a clean bill of health for Nene and a season-long commitment to defense. The Hornets haven't found their rhythm this year because of a litany of injuries to their stars.
Carmelo Anthony vs. past Playoffs failures: When Carmelo Anthony came into the league six years ago, he was known for two things: his smile and his Most Outstanding Player honors in the 2003 NCAA Tournament. Since then, he has gone 4-20 in five first-round exits from the Playoffs and his public image has been ravaged by a sucker punch against the Knicks, the "Stop Snitching" DVD and a couple of other off-court infractions with the law.
The difference between Anthony's postseason chances this year vs. those in years past is that Denver has home-court advantage for the first time in his career. The Nuggets tied a franchise record with 54 wins and get the privilege of hosting Games 1-2 at the Pepsi Center, where the team went 33-8 during the regular season. Anthony started his rehabilitation with the gold medal in Beijing and taking the shears to his cornrows. He can continue to turn the tide of public perception by helping Denver win deep into May.
14.7 -- Combined, Denver's blocks per game (6.02, 2nd in the NBA) and its steals per game (8.67, 3rd in the NBA) are tops in the NBA -- one way to quantify the disruptive defense that Denver has added to its arsenal.
1. Who has the edge in the Chauncey Billups-Chris Paul matchup?
As great as Billups is -- he has the ring, Finals MVP trophy and Mr. Big Shot moniker -- Paul is a playing at a completely different level. Five or six players in the league can dominate in every aspect of the game. Paul is one of them. If he can ratchet up his game the way he has over the last week of the season (26 points, nine rebounds, nine assists against Miami; 42, nine and seven against Dallas; 32, nine and 17 assists against Dallas again), Billups -- or anybody else on Denver for that matter -- won't stand a chance at stopping him.
2. How effective will Peja Stojakovic, Tyson Chandler and James Posey be for N.O.?
They've missed nearly a full season's worth of games among them and each brings a vital component to the court. So, what happens if Stojakovic's back keeps him from providing a deep threat, Chandler's ankle keeps him from playing defense and Posey's elbow keeps him from doing all of the above this postseason?
All three played in the Hornets' season finale loss to the Spurs, with Stojakovic going 0-for-5 in 28 minutes, Chandler scoring 10 points but only collecting three rebounds against three turnovers in 20 minutes and Posey contributing two points, an assist and a bunch of zeros in 13 minutes.
Both Stojakovic and Posey had some success in the regular-season matchups with the Nuggets, while Chandler missed all four games. If they aren't at 100 percent, the burden falls even more heavily on the shoulders of Paul and David West. "We're going to need guys to step up," West told reporters. "That's just the bottom line."
3. Will the Hornets play with a sense of urgency?
New Orleans tried to deal Chandler to Oklahoma City under the guise of getting two rebounders in Chris Wilcox and Joe Smith, but really the move was made in order to get under the league's luxury tax threshold. The trade was rescinded after Chandler failed the physical and the team is in the same financial quandary it was in before. With the Hornets reportedly one of the 15 teams to accept millions of dollars from the league's loan program, there is still the elephant in the room that there could be big changes looming in the offseason to dump salary.
Knowing full well that this could be the last go-round as a unit could have a galvanizing effect in the Playoffs for the Hornets.
4. What happens if Denver doesn't win?
If the Nuggets can't get out of the first round with everything on their side -- the home court, the healthy roster, the 8-2 record over their last 10 games -- you have to wonder if it will ever happen with this mix of personnel.
If they fizzle out as they did against the Lakers last season, expect wholesale changes with nobody on the roster (outside of maybe Billups) safe. Anthony already was dangled on the market last summer, and all of the goodwill built up for coach George Karl by supporters of his Coach of the Year candidacy won't save him if the Nuggets make it 0-for-6 in the first round since 2004.
5. Can anybody stop J.R. Smith?
Smith had a breakout season and was TNT analyst David Aldridge's pick for Most Improved Player after upping his averages to 15.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game in his fifth season. Smith performed even better against the Hornets, averaging 21.3 points off the bench in the four meetings.
With a prototypical guard's body (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) and incredible strength, speed and leaping ability, Smith has the ability to take over a game. Denver was 6-2 this season when he scored 25 points or more.
Posey will be Hornets coach Byron Scott's first option to put on Smith, followed by second-year wingman Julian Wright, who earned Scott's trust late in the season while filling in when injuries plagued the roster.
Nuggets in 6. Denver is at full strength while New Orleans appears to be a team on its last legs.
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