Five Observations: Hornets 96, Trail Blazers 81

Wednesday, January 23, 2008
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

In posting a sixth consecutive win on Wednesday, the Hornets came up with their most impressive triumph of the streak. New Orleans hasn't won this many games in a row since the 2002-03 season.

The Hornets (29-12) shook off a rough start in which they fell behind by 12 to grab a four-point halftime lead. New Orleans used a stingy defense to hold a 48-37 edge in the second half, resulting in a 15-point victory.

Jannero Pargo was the big star for the hosts, racking up a season-high 24 points, including 15 in the second quarter. Pargo joked with the media – at least, I think he was joking – that he made sure to wear his best suit to the arena, because he had a feeling he would play well enough to be on TV tonight. Good thinking, Jannero – the 6-foot-1 guard had more reporters around his locker than any other Hornet after his 10-for-18 shooting performance.

David West carried the Hornets in the first half with 18 of his 22 points. Chris Paul added 18 points and 10 assists, while Peja Stojakovic helped the hosts pull away by tallying all 12 of his points after intermission.

New Orleans received more good news when Minnesota stunned Phoenix, allowing the Hornets to move into a first-place tie with the Suns at the top of the West standings. Technically, the Hornets are No. 1 in the West, based on their 2-0 series edge on the Suns so far.

Now that we're at the exact halfway point of the season, instead of doing our usual five-observations rundown, let's update how Hornets players are answering the questions we asked about them back on Sept. 10 on Hornets.com (Note: Ryan Bowen is not included in this "key questions" list because he was signed by New Orleans in October. All statistics below are entering Wednesday's game vs. Portland). STARTERS
Chris Paul

How much will he improve his perimeter accuracy in his third NBA season?
A lot. Paul’s field goal percentage of 48.9 is outstanding for a point guard. He’s also raised his three-point accuracy to 36.0 percent. The improvement in his perimeter game has been a big part of his ascension to legit MVP candidate.
Morris Peterson
Will he prove that his reduced role during his final season with Toronto was a fluke?
His individual numbers aren’t spectacular (8.8 ppg, 39.6 field-goal percentage), but he’s provided an additional three-point threat (37.4 percent) and started 38 times for a division-leading team. He’s also the most reliable shooting guard the Hornets have had in years.
Peja Stojakovic
How much better can he make the Hornets in 2007-08?
He obviously hasn’t done it alone, but the answer to this one has been “significantly better.” The Hornets were 8-5 with Stojakovic in the lineup last season, but 31-38 without him. His return to being one of the NBA’s most prolific three-point shooters (95 makes) has been a huge boost.
David West
Is he poised to move into the next tier of power forwards?
Yes. West is being mentioned as a candidate to make the All-Star Game for the first time in his career. He’s always been brought up as one of the NBA’s most underrated players, but that may not last too much longer. He may have received more recognition nationally in the past two months than in his entire previous four pro seasons – combined.
Tyson Chandler
Was his breakout 2006-07 a one-time occurrence or how he’ll play throughout the rest of his NBA career?
It looks like the Chandler of last season is here to stay. The 7-foot-1 center has followed up what he did in 2006-07 by averaging about three more points per game and almost exactly the same number of rebounds.

RESERVES
Hilton Armstrong

How much improvement can he make now that he’ll likely be given every opportunity to be the first frontcourt player off the bench?
He looked great in preseason – like he’d be the Hornets’ most improved player. But he was inconsistent early in the season and has fallen out of the rotation recently.
Rasual Butler
Can he be the consistent shooter that the Hornets need to upgrade their bench?
It hasn’t happened. For the first time in his three seasons with New Orleans, he has dropped out of Byron Scott’s rotation for an extended period. He is shooting 36.2 percent from the field.
Adam Haluska
Can he parlay his shooting prowess into a rotation spot as a rookie?
No. He had some nice moments in preseason, including a team-high 20-point game vs. Indiana, but he has yet to appear in a regular season game. An ankle injury sustained in practice has sidelined him for several weeks.
Bobby Jackson
Will he be able to remain healthy and play 70-plus games for the second time in three years?
Right now he’s on pace to do so. Jackson actually appeared in all of New Orleans’ first 39 games, sitting for the first time Monday vs. Milwaukee (strained right hamstring). He missed 26 games to injury in 2006-07.
Jannero Pargo
How large will his role be if Chris Paul and Bobby Jackson are both healthy all season?
Well, Paul and Jackson have been healthy nearly the entire season so this is applicable, but Pargo’s importance to the club hasn’t changed much. His minutes are down slightly, from 20.9 per game last season to 16.6 now.
Marcus Vinicius
Will he be able to build on last season’s impressive D-League stint?
Although he hasn’t played a ton, it’s still been much more than he did as a rookie. He appeared in 11 of the team’s first 40 games after making just 13 appearances in 2006-07.
Julian Wright
How much of an impact can he make as a rookie?
There have been two separate stretches where he was part of the rotation and showed flashes of his potential. But he’s fallen back out of the mix recently. Wright realizes that, with the team playing so well, he may have to wait until 2008-09 to become a bigger factor.



Trail Blazers-Hornets is underrated matchup


If you've followed the NBA closely this season, tonight's Hornets game vs. Portland (7 p.m., New Orleans Arena) should be one that you're looking forward to watching. This matchup includes two teams that weren't supposed to be this good, but have opened eyes by competing with the West's elite teams. The Blazers (25-16) are the third-youngest team in NBA history, which has made their tremendous success even more stunning.

These are also two of the league's hottest squads right now, with New Orleans at 8-1 in January and Portland having gone 20-4 since a 5-12 start this season.

The Blazers have moved into my top-10 list of teams to watch on NBA League Pass. They are not extraordinarily talented on paper, but they've shown what can happen when you have good chemistry and unselfish players. And when you have an emerging star like Brandon Roy, who is on the cusp of becoming a big star. Some people lately have compared him to the early pro version of Dwyane Wade, which is an interesting analogy.

I'll be providing updates from this intriguing Western Conference matchup in our Courtside Live blog. You can also find out more about the Trail Blazers in our latest Rival Report with their TV play-by-play guy, Mike Barrett.

Visit the Big Easy Buzz blog about 45 minutes after the final buzzer for our postgame recap. At the exact midpoint of the 82-game regular season, I'll also be breaking down the Hornets' roster in the Five Observations rundown.