Conference Call: Hornets 10th, begin four-game road trip

Friday, January 22, 2010
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

The Hornets’ second-longest road trip of the 2009-10 season, which begins tonight in Minneapolis against the Timberwolves (7 p.m.), consists of a visit to three different time zones over the first four days. It features meetings against three consecutive Northwest Division opponents, among them that division’s first- and last-place club. It also includes a visit to the venue where last season came to a frustrating conclusion.

Before examining an extremely tight Western Conference playoff chase, let’s briefly look at the four opponents the Hornets (22-19) will face over a six-day span, concluding Wednesday in Oakland, Calif.

• The Timberwolves (9-34) only have three victories all season over teams that are currently above .500, including none since Dec. 14. However, the Wolves had the Hornets on the ropes during the last meeting on Dec. 9, but Chris Paul bailed out New Orleans with a last-second layup that gave the Hornets a 97-96 road victory.

• Denver (28-14) enters Saturday’s game (8 p.m., Pepsi Center) riding a five-game winning streak. More bad news for Nuggets opponents is that they are about as healthy now as they’ve been all season. Top three scorers Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith missed time due to injury or suspension earlier in the season but are all back in action.

• When the Hornets visit Portland (26-17) on Monday, the Trail Blazers will have just returned from a four-game, six-day road trip of their own. Portland has done an outstanding job of withstanding injuries to key players, but now All-Star guard Brandon Roy is sidelined with a hamstring ailment. Roy won’t play tonight or Saturday, so it’s possible he’ll be out for the game against the Hornets as well.

• Speaking of teams ravaged by injuries, Golden State (12-28) finished a recent loss to Milwaukee with only five eligible players (after an in-game injury and three players fouled out). In the Warriors’ last game Wednesday vs. Denver, they only had eight players in uniform – and among Golden State’s three reserves, none were on an NBA roster on opening night.

New Orleans is tied with Memphis for 10th place in the Western Conference standings, but is technically ahead of the Grizzlies based on a 1-0 head-to-head advantage. With the race extremely congested, the following chart shows how things look at the moment. It’s interesting to note that although the Hornets are not in the top eight, they are also only three games out of fourth place, which equals homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. A closer look at the race, beginning with fourth-place San Antonio and the teams that are within shouting distance of New Orleans:

4, SAN ANTONIO 25-16 (3 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Spurs lead 2-0. Remaining games: March 1 at NOLA, March 5 at San Antonio.
Spurs begin challenging five-game homestand tonight vs. Houston, then go on their traditional “Rodeo Trip,” which this year consists of eight games, with a respite in the middle due to the All-Star break.

5, PORTLAND 26-17 (3 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Trail Blazers lead 1-0. Remaining games: Jan. 25 at Portland, March 27 at NOLA.
Blazers are entering one of the most brutal schedule stretches you will ever see, with 11 of the next 12 games against teams that currently sport winning records.

6, PHOENIX 25-18 (2 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series vs. Hornets: Tied 1-1. Remaining games: Feb. 1 at NOLA, March 14 at Phoenix.
Suns are only 11-15 since Dec. 1, which does not bode for an upcoming six-game span when they are scheduled to visit Utah, Houston, New Orleans and Denver.

7, OKLAHOMA CITY 24-18 (1.5 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 1-0. Remaining games: Feb. 3 at NOLA, March 10 at Oklahoma City.
Unlike the Hornets, the Thunder has feasted on Eastern Conference opponents this season, going 15-4 so far. Unfortunately for OKC, only 11 of its final 40 games are against the East.

8, UTAH 24-18 (1.5 games ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 1-0. Remaining games: Feb. 17 at NOLA, March 20 at Utah, April 9 at NOLA.
Jazz heads into favorable stretch of schedule, with six home games out of the next seven contests. However, their guests include Phoenix, Dallas, Portland and Denver.

9, HOUSTON 23-18 (1 game ahead of New Orleans)
Season series: Tied 1-1. Remaining games: Feb. 21 at NOLA, April 14 at Houston.
Rockets have gone only 3-5 this month, enabling the Hornets to gain 3 1/2 games on them since Jan. 1. Like Utah, Houston has six of its next seven games at home, but the docket features several high-caliber opponents.

10, NEW ORLEANS 22-19
Conference record: 15-9, fourth-best winning percentage in the West
Between now and the All-Star break, Hornets play seven of 12 games on the road. Eight of those games are against teams that currently have winning records.

11, MEMPHIS 22-19 (tied with New Orleans)
Season series: Hornets lead 1-0. Remaining games: Jan. 30 at Memphis, March 3 at NOLA, April 2 at Memphis.
Of 10 Grizzlies games between now and the All-Star break, only two are against sub-.500 opponents. postgame: Hornets 96, Timberwolves 94

Don't let his average of 5.7 points in 2009-10 or the fact that he's only the Hornets' 10th-leading scorer this season fool you. The Hornets appear to have a new secret weapon in the clutch.

Forty-eight hours after scoring the game-winning layup against Memphis with 1.1 seconds left, James Posey improbably did it again tonight at Minnesota.

With the game tied, Chris Paul inbounded to Posey, then quickly darted to his left. Both Minnesota defenders stepped toward Paul – who beat the Timberwolves on Dec. 9 with a layup in the exact same situation – leaving Posey with a clear path to drive in for a right-handed layup. His basket dropped through the net as time expired.

“I was shocked,” Posey said of being freed up so easily. “It was a good, hard cut by Chris. He set that up, so I was able to get the layup.”

Talk about making your points count. Over these two narrow wins against the Grizzlies and Timberwolves, the 6-foot-8 backup small forward has scored a total of 12 points on six field goals, but two of those baskets enabled New Orleans (23-19) to pull out a nail-biter.

More from a game that upped the Hornets’ record in January to 9-3 and improved what was once an abominable overall road record to 7-16:

• Tough night physically for NOLA’s pair of All-Stars. West sustained a left ankle sprain in the second quarter and did not return after scoring 14 points. Meanwhile, Paul was poked in the left eye in the fourth quarter, causing some swelling. West’s status for Saturday’s game in Denver is uncertain.

“I haven’t been told anything about his condition yet,” Jeff Bower told Hornets radio's Gerry Vaillancourt, less than 30 minutes after the game ended.

• One of the best signs for the Hornets from a big-picture standpoint was that late in the third quarter and early in fourth – when they pushed in front by 10 points – both rookies and Julian Wright were on the floor. An energetic Wright provided exactly what the Hornets needed with active play on the boards and away from the ball. Darren Collison had one of his best games of late, while Marcus Thornton continued rolling, this time with nine points.

HORNETS POSTGAME QUOTES (courtesy Minnesota Timberwolves)
Hornets Head Coach Jeff Bower

"It was a game of total extremes as far as the emotions of it, from the execution that James made on the last play of reading and faking the handoff and going was really was a mart play and a hard play to pull off. These are the type of games that when you look back at the end of the year and point to and say that really meant something. We're happy to get the win, extremely happy to get the win, particularly with David West leaving the game for a large part of it. Chris's eye got hit pretty good but he was able to finish it. We got real good play off of our bench from a number of players across the board that all contributed."
Defending Minnesota's play down the stretch: "That was kind of what we've been doing in the late game for a little while and that's how we've been able to win close games by coming up with a big play when we needed it. I though Minnesota did a really good job of putting us into difficult situations that we struggles with particularly in the middle to end of that 4th quarter, scored off some pick and rolls and we had a hard time getting under control but we got a key stop when we needed it so we'll take it."
Attacking the rim more: "I give them a lot of credit, its part of our game that we had to add to our offensive in of the floor and they've been aggressive, they've been smart with their drives as far as when to attack and when to drive and kick and its helped us get to the foul line more and has helped us get some additional points in the paint. And its a big part of blending our three point shooting with an attempt to get the ball to the rim more."
Update on David West? "I haven't been told anything about his condition yet."

Hornets Guard Darren Collison
On getting wins at this time of the season: "Anytime you get in a position like that you've got to make sure you get the game, because from here on out down the stretch it's about wins."
On getting wins: "No matter how you get it done, whether it's a messy win or a good win; you just want to make sure you get the win."

Hornets Guard Chris Paul
On the way their games with the Wolves went: "It was pretty ironic we were in the same situation as last time."
On James Posey: "They call him 'Big Game James' for a reason, now he's just used to hitting game-winners."
On his eye: "I had vision problems out there. That one three I hit, I told them I couldn't see anything. Hopefully I can get the swelling to stop."
On the way they won: "We win like this all the time, we're somewhat getting used to it by now. Our fans in New Orleans know we always try to make it interesting."

Hornets Forward James Posey
On the last play: "That was like my little Drew Brees, play-action to C.P., and keep it."
On the Wolves: "They always take us down to the wire."
On Chris Paul's vision on the final play: "He couldn't see, so I think two eyes are better than one, even though he has good vision."
Why they pulled through at the end: "We just got stops down the stretch, and we made plays on the offensive end."