Five Observations: Hornets 118, Suns 113

Saturday, January 5, 2008
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

While surprising nearly everyone around the NBA by compiling one of the Western Conference’s best records, the Hornets have pulled off some excellent wins over the first two-plus months of the campaign. Saturday’s victory in Phoenix was their best of the 2007-08 season.

Playing in the second night of back-to-back games, playing without second-leading scorer David West (bruised hip), playing on the home floor on a perennial title contender, the Hornets (23-11) made a slew of clutch baskets in the fourth quarter to stun the Suns (23-10).

“This is a great, great win for our team,” said Chris Paul, who totaled 28 points, including 14 in a brilliant fourth quarter, along with 10 assists. “Hopefully this is a good sign for the future. This team showed a lot of poise and kept fighting and kept hanging around.”

“We knew we weren’t going to have D West and we knew we were going to miss him,” related Morris Peterson, who poured in 22 points, including five three-pointers. “But we wanted to come out aggressively. Everyone played together and did what they were supposed to do defensively.”

Guaranteed no worse than a 2-1 road trip, the Hornets could have easily been satisfied with what they had accomplished earlier this week. Phoenix couldn’t shake New Orleans, though, holding a lead for much of the night but never gaining complete command.

Without a doubt, this team is proving that it is a force to be reckoned with, having defeated Phoenix twice in the span of three weeks. “This Hornets team is for real,” lauded Phoenix TV broadcaster Gary Bender. “They are one of the rising threats in the West.”

Five observations from the tremendous five-point win in Arizona:

1) No David West, but Jannero Pargo responds with a breakout game in emergency start.
Two games ago at the Clippers, Pargo was one of three Hornets who received DNPs from Byron Scott (the others were Rasual Butler and Julian Wright), despite having played in virtually every game in the weeks prior to that night. Give the 6-foot-1 guard credit for not complaining and being ready when his number was called. Suns TV analyst Eddie Johnson compared Pargo to Phoenix defensive stopper Raja Bell during the game, describing both players as “hungry” after going through a great deal of adversity before finally landing permanent jobs in the NBA.

Pargo was fantastic Saturday. In what was probably his best performance of the season – and definitely his most valuable – Pargo poured in 19 points and added five assists. He’s been in a shooting slump over the past weeks, but went 8-for-12 in Phoenix.

2) Chris Paul vs. Steve Nash? Based on the fourth quarter, give the edge to CP.
For a second straight time in a duel with Phoenix’s two-time MVP, Paul got the upper hand. On Dec. 15 in New Orleans, Nash had a subpar game. On Saturday, he was his usual outstanding self, putting up 23 points and 11 assists. However, he only had two points in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Paul netted 14 final-period points. He struggled from the perimeter most of the game – going 11-for-26 shooting and 1-of-7 on treys – but was at his best when the Hornets needed him to be. As Suns TV’s Eddie Johnson said, “Chris Paul is becoming one of the most clutch players in the NBA.”

3) Bench still playing reduced minutes.
With Pargo starting, the bench rotation was altered slightly, with Byron Scott using four guys: Bobby Jackson, Hilton Armstrong, Marcus Vinicius and Ryan Bowen. The bench only totaled seven points, but none of the reserves played more than Jackson’s 13 minutes. Rasual Butler and Julian Wright again picked up DNPs for the third straight time during the road trip.

4) The buzz on... Hilton Armstrong.
The second-year big man from Connecticut was active at both ends Saturday, but a common problem has been creeping up that needs to be rectified. When he makes moves in the post, Armstrong is getting the ball knocked away from him too easily. He needs to be stronger while turning toward the basket or attacking the rim. It seems like he hasn’t been getting much respect from referees at the offensive end, but part of that could be because he hasn’t been taking the ball strongly enough to the hoop. Given how often he has been either catching a pass near the hoop or grabbing an offensive rebound at point-blank range, he should be getting more foul calls.

5) Recapping the week.
What an incredible road trip this was for the Hornets. Even the most optimistic Hornets fan did not envision a 3-0 trek, particularly with Golden State and Phoenix among the opponents. The competition got progressively stiffer in each game of the trip, but New Orleans just continued to push its performance to a higher level. The lone stumble of the four-game week, Monday’s defeat vs. Toronto, now looks like an aberration. New Orleans is 23-11, a half game shy of the best record in the Western Conference, and 14-5 on the road. Those are stunning numbers for a club that was only picked by about half of the prognosticators to make the playoffs in 2008.

Fans can participate in the Hornets Radio Network’s postgame call-in show, “Hornets OT,” by dialing (504) 593-4910. The show is hosted by Joe Block.

Cleo from Gretna called to say this: “This was an awesome win for the Hornets. CP3 should be a starter in the All-Star Game, no matter what.”

Bobby called from the French Quarter to say: “You’ve got to love this team. When one starter goes down, another guys steps up. You can’t say that about a lot of teams. You couldn’t say that about the Cavaliers or the Lakers, that if they lost their best player, they (could still be successful). The Hornets are one of the best teams not just in the West, but in the NBA.”

Frequent caller Vern from Metairie called to inquire about David West's status for Wednesday's home game vs. the Lakers. Joe Block said he is "99 percent sure" that West will play in the game against the Lakers. New Orleans gets a rare three-day break from game action before the contest against the Lakers, allowing West some time to recuperate.


Five Observations: Hornets 116, Warriors 104

New Orleans (22-11) posted its fifth consecutive road victory Friday at Golden State. Among the handful of recent road triumphs, this one was easily the most impressive – and the most entertaining. After taking a two-point lead into halftime, the Hornets broke it open with a 32-18 third-quarter edge. Golden State cut its deficit somewhat in the fourth quarter, but as soon as the Warriors pulled within striking distance, Chris Paul dropped in several clutch baskets. The final period turned into a virtual highlight reel for the visitors, capped by Tyson Chandler’s thunderous alley-oop dunk off a Paul lob pass. Morris Peterson also got hot from the perimeter, draining three straight three-pointers.

Overall, Paul (24 points, 13 assists) and Peja Stojakovic (24 points, 6-for-9 on three-pointers, 7 rebounds) led the offense, while Chandler turned in one of his finest games as a Hornet, including 22 points and 22 rebounds.

“It was a great win for us,” Hornets coach Byron Scott said, before alluding to the team’s current three-game Western road trip, which concludes at the Suns on Saturday. “We looked at these three as critical games. No matter what happens in Phoenix, it’s been a successful trip, but obviously we want to go there and get another win.”

David West (20 points) compiled his seventh straight game of tallying 20 points or more, but suffered a bruised hip on a nasty fall over a Golden State player who was attempting a layup in the fourth quarter. Scott indicated that West “probably” will miss the Phoenix game, but his status wasn’t definitive right after Friday’s win.

Five observations from the 12-point win at Oracle Arena:

1) Rotation remains shortened.
After shuffling his bench considerably Wednesday at the Clippers, Scott maintained a similar plan Friday. Scott did not use Rasual Butler or Julian Wright for a second straight game; Hilton Armstrong’s action was limited to two minutes at the end of the game with the Hornets up big.

Meanwhile, Marcus Vinicius, rarely used over the first 31 games of the season, received seven minutes and responded by connecting on a trey in his first shot attempt. He added a free throw. Ryan Bowen made his return to action after missing 18 games with a sprained knee, and immediately earned praise from Scott after grabbing four rebounds (three offensive boards) in 19 minutes.

“I had only planned on playing (Bowen) about 10 minutes, just to get his feet wet,” said Scott, who gave Bowen more time after West was injured in the fourth period. “(Bowen) did an unbelievable job. That’s what we’ve been missing the last six weeks, that type of effort and hustle. It was good to see him back.”

2) Giving up 104 points to the Warriors? Not bad.
New Orleans kept the NBA’s second-best scoring team under its average of 108.2 points per game. Warriors catalyst Stephen Jackson was held to 11 points on 4-for-15 shooting and Golden State was minus-23 with Jackson in the game. Monta Ellis also struggled, scoring only three points on 1-for-3 shooting. If you had told the Hornets before the game that the Warriors’ talented wing players would combine for 14 points on 5-for-18 accuracy, they would have taken it in a heartbeat.

3) The final stats were similar, but give the nod to the current Hornets point guard vs. the former Hornets point guard.
Overall, ex-New Orleans star Baron Davis finished with 26 points and eight assists. His counterpart, Paul, had 24 points and 13 assists. That’s pretty much a draw, right? Wrong. In the second half, CP3 tallied 14 points, while Davis only had six. Furthermore, Davis has never been great at the free-throw line and his poor foul shooting hurt the Warriors; he was 5-for-10 there Friday.

Paul also had five steals and the Hornets were plus-18 with him on the court. The Warriors were the exact opposite – minus-18 – with Davis on the court.

4) The road continues to be kind to the Hornets.
New Orleans improved to 13-5 in away games, one of the best road records in the NBA. The Hornets’ success in enemy territory is even more impressive when you look at the five defeats: at Utah, at Denver, at Dallas, at Portland (twice). Once again Friday, New Orleans was able to build a nice working margin entering the fourth quarter and did not allow Golden State to make a significant push at a comeback. That appears to be one area where the Hornets have made big strides in 2007-08, after a 2006-07 season that included several late-game comebacks by hosts.

By the way, Bob Licht mentioned on Cox Sports TV that Friday’s game was a sellout, Golden State’s 12th full house of the season. I’m wondering if fans around the league are starting to realize that New Orleans is a legitimate foe. It’s interesting to note that based on average attendance, the Hornets were the NBA’s second-poorest road draw entering Friday’s slate of games. Only Washington (15,073 fans per away contest) was lower on the list of average road attendance than New Orleans (15,189). This is a Hornets team with one of the NBA’s brightest young stars in Chris Paul and has been among the league’s best clubs in the early portion of the season, so go figure.

5) The buzz on...Peja Stojakovic
It’s becoming increasingly evident that the 10-year NBA veteran made a wise decision when he signed with New Orleans as a free agent in the summer of 2006. By getting to play with unselfish distributor Chris Paul, Stojakovic is receiving an ample amount of open shots on the perimeter. He’s been cashing in on the quality looks at the basket, entering Friday’s action ranked No. 7 in the NBA in three-point baskets made. He was poised to move even further up that list after canning six three-balls at Golden State.

The 6-foot-10, 30-year-old small forward is not known as a great rebounder or individual defender, but that’s another reason why he is a good fit with the Hornets. New Orleans, which ranks fourth in the NBA in points allowed, has played excellent team defense and has a feared shot-blocker behind Stojakovic in the 7-foot-1 Chandler. The Hornets are also an above-average rebounding team, led primarily by Chandler (12.0 boards per game) and West (9.6). Stojakovic has been allowed to do what he does well and his weaknesses are often compensated for by the strengths of teammates.