First 2007-08 meeting with Rockets on Sunday afternoon

Sunday, January 13, 2008
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

New Orleans (24-12) visits Houston (20-17) at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. The Rockets have won five straight games without Tracy McGrady (left knee), who hasn't played since Dec. 23. McGrady is expected to miss at least another two games with the injury.

Today's game at the Toyota Center can be viewed on NBA League Pass. It's worth noting that after today, Cox Sports Television will broadcast 44 of the final 45 Hornets games of the regular season. The only game that will NOT be on Cox from here on out is the March 5 home contest against Atlanta.

By the way, I got to watch a lot of ESPN's Friday broadcast on replay. ESPN provided a ton of good information about the Hornets and the city of New Orleans (check out my talk with ESPN's Hubie Brown from Friday). They also participated in-person in some of the numerous community projects that took place here last week, which was commendable. Obviously, we'd love to have them back again this season.

As it turns out, ESPN also sang the praises of the Hornets during the second game of its Friday doubleheader, Milwaukee-Lakers.

ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said this about the Hornets: "How great have they played this year? Their general manager Jeff Bower, who probably very few people know about, has done an outstanding job putting that team together. They are for real."

Said partner Mike Breen: "Bower is a guy who started out as a scout, now a GM. He's maybe the most unknown GM in all of pro sports, but has just done a terrific job. A great basketball man."

Five Observations: Hornets 87, Rockets 82

Just when you thought Chris Paul couldn't top himself during his MVP-like season, he did it again Sunday. Trailing 82-81 late in the fourth quarter, Paul drove the length of the floor for a go-ahead layup with 29 seconds remaining. He added four free throws the rest of the way, icing the seventh straight road victory for New Orleans (25-12).

After Paul's layup, Houston's Yao Ming missed on a short hook shot while being defended well by David West (Tyson Chandler had fouled out on the previous Rockets possession). Paul (19 points, 12 assists) dropped in a pair of free throws with 14.6 ticks to go. With no timeouts left and attempting to tie it, Yao - of all people - fired up a three-pointer from the left wing that was errant. New Orleans rebounded the miss and got the ball to Paul, who sank two more free throws with 2.6 seconds left.

West turned in an excellent performance with a team-best 26 points on 12-for-27 shooting, including 16 of the Hornets' 46 first-half points. West also had 12 rebounds. Jannero Pargo was the other New Orleans player in double-digit scoring, logging 10 points.

Five observations from the five-point victory at the Toyota Center:

1) After a breakthrough Friday, Hornets reserves come up big in fourth quarter.
New Orleans' subs racked up 50 points in the blowout win on Miami, which was in stark contrast to the type of production they've been giving Byron Scott lately. So everyone was paying close attention to see how they would follow up that night, less than 48 hours later in Houston. They responded well. After his unconscious 9-for-9 shooting game vs. the Heat, Bobby Jackson had nine points, including seven in the fourth quarter. Pargo had a bench-best 10 points, plus two big final-period baskets.

Overall, the bench held a 28-25 scoring advantage over Houston's backups and went 12-for-25 from the field (48 percent). The coaching staff would love nothing more than to see this continue during the upcoming five-game homestand.

2) Speaking of the bench, Rasual Butler sits for the game's first 42 minutes - yet still makes one of the game's biggest baskets.
You don't see this happen too often in the NBA: the 6-foot-7 swingman appeared headed to a DNP-coach's decision when he still hadn't taken his warmups off midway through the fourth quarter. Then, with 5:55 left, Scott inserted Butler into the proceedings in a nip-and-tip affair. A quiet games by Peja Stojakovic (2 points, 0-for-5 FGs) seemed to factor into Scott's decision to go to Butler.

Butler ended up breaking a 78-all deadlock by throwing down a fast-break dunk with about a minute left. He also was fouled on the play and sank the free throw to make it 81-78 Hornets. New Orleans outscored Houston by nine points after the La Salle product came into the game. It will be interesting to see Wednesday how this cameo impacts Butler's role.

3) Defense shines against Houston role players.
The Hornets allowed Rockets primary threat Yao to roll up 30 points, but he had to take 24 shots to do it, so it could have been worse from a New Orleans perspective. However, the rest of the Rockets were 20-for-49 overall from the field. The 82 overall points allowed represented the Hornets' best defensive effort since the Jan. 2 game at the Clippers, a 95-81 win.

"In the fourth quarter, we buckled down again," Scott said of his defense."We never let them get out of reach."

4) The buzz on...Tyson Chandler.
Think about how far Chandler has come offensively since he joined the Hornets in the summer of 2006. In his final 2005-06 season with Chicago, he averaged a meager 5.3 points, the lowest of his career. Now when he scores seven points in a game -as he did Sunday - it's looked at as a quiet offensive game.

Prior to the trip to Houston, the 7-foot-1 center had tallied double-digit points in all five January games and was up to a career-best 12.3 scoring average in 2007-08. He is shooting 60 percent from the field this season, not far from his 62 percent clip last season, but this year's percentage is much more impressive to me, because he's not feasting as much on dunks and putbacks.

Sure, he's been good for about two alley-oop slams a game lately, but he's also added a hook shot that he goes to more often and a face-up mid-range jumper. Chandler spent a lot of time on the court in pregame Sunday working on that shot with Hornets assistant coach Kenny Gattison. He brought out the shot in the first quarter Sunday, swishing a 10-footer over Yao Ming.

There are many reasons why New Orleans is one of the most improved teams in the NBA this season. The continued offensive development of Chandler has been another subtle factor.

5) Previewing the longest homestand of the season.
Fans know it, the media knows it and Hornets players know it: this team has to play better at home if it's going to reach its potential this season. The Hornets are 15-5 on the road now, but only 10-7 at home. The next two weeks will provide New Orleans with a prime opportunity to start making some headway in this department. Over a five-game homestand, the Hornets host four opponents that currently have losing records (Seattle, Charlotte, Milwaukee, L.A. Clippers). The best foe in the quintet is red-hot Portland, which should make the Jan. 23 head-to-head matchup one that will be viewed with interest throughout the NBA.

Seattle has not seemed to improve much throughout the course of the season, while Charlotte has shown the potential to be dangerous on the road (winning at Boston last week and taking Cleveland to overtime at Quicken Loans Arena). Milwaukee has played a little bit better of late; the Clippers haven't approached their surprising early-season success over the past several weeks.

"This is going to be a big month for us," West said. "We just want to try to put some wins together, gain some momentum and keep it going."