Five Observations: Hornets 111, Clippers 92

Friday, January 25, 2008
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

The Hornets capped a perfect 5-0 homestand, improved to a Western Conference-leading 30-12 and picked up their seventh consecutive victory Friday. Seven different Hornets reached double figures vs. the Clippers, highlighted by Peja Stojakovic's 26-point, six-trey performance. Jannero Pargo (14 points), David West (14), Rasual Butler (12), Tyson Chandler (11) and Morris Peterson (11) all made nice contributions offensively. Chris Paul (8 points) was not in that group, but he handed out 14 assists.

"(Our confidence) can't be any more than what it is right now," Hornets coach Byron Scott said. "We're a pretty comfortable and confident bunch right now. They're going into games expecting to win."

Five observations from a 19-point victory at the New Orleans Arena:

1) Another three-point barrage from Peja.
Stojakovic has now had five games in which he’s made at least five three-pointers. He went off for six treys Friday, including five consecutive in the third quarter. His final long-range bomb had “heat check” written all over it, a fadeaway 24-footer with Clippers defender Corey Maggette in Stojakovic’s face.

A few fans started chanting “Let’s go Pe-ja!” after the small forward buried his sixth three-pointer of the game. Shortly after that, Stojakovic caught the ball a few feet in front of the halfcourt stripe, yet a group of spectators were yelling for him to fire from there.

“I felt good,” Stojakovic said. “I think every player in this league goes through that (of being in a zone). You make a few of those, and you want more to give yourself a chance. The guys were looking for me and setting screens for me.”

In the locker room afterward, I saw a reporter congratulate Stojakovic on his success in 2007-08, saying it’s been nice to see Peja do well after how much criticism he received nationally last season amid the back injury that kept him out of 69 games. Some of the negativity directed toward Stojakovic obviously also had to do with the large free-agent contract he signed in July 2006.

2) This is the best we’ve seen from Jannero Pargo in his 1 1/2 seasons with the Hornets.
The 6-foot-1 guard has had a few excellent five- to 10-game stretches since he joined New Orleans last season, but his consistency lately has been top-notch. He’s reached double figures in scoring five times in the last seven games and was the Player of the Game against Portland, racking up a season-best 24 points.

“He’s been marvelous the past few weeks,” Scott raved, “as far as running the show, picking up the tempo and hitting the right guys at the right time (with passes). And he’s also been able to make his shots and be aggressive as well.”

On Friday, Pargo was 6-for-8 from the field in 25 minutes and had two steals.

3) Rasual Butler appears firmly back in the rotation.
The 6-foot-7 swingman picked up multiple DNPs earlier this month, the first time that’s happened in his three seasons with the team. But over the past two games, he’s gotten the nod from Scott as the first reserve off the bench. He responded Friday with 12 points, including 4-for-5 three-point shooting.

“Hopefully he’s back,” Scott said of Butler, whose inconsistency has been the biggest reason for his fluctuating playing time with the Hornets. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

I was wondering what it was that got Butler back into the rotation – a few good practices, perhaps? – since he wasn’t getting minutes in games. The La Salle product’s response: “I stayed positive and never let my attitude change. Coach sat me down a little bit and tried to get my mind together.

“I’m trying to play with a lot of energy, run the floor really hard, and I’ve been pretty good defensively. Even in practice, that’s something I’m focusing on – using my length to get deflections and get my hands on the ball defensively.”

4) Recapping a perfect homestand.
Scott was asked if there was anything more he could’ve asked from this 5-0 homestand. He joked “maybe if there were three or four more games (in it).”

New Orleans won the quintet of home games by 31, 28, 14, 15 and 19 points, improving to 15-7 on the year here. Sure, the competition wasn’t all that stout other than Portland, but the Hornets beat the red-hot Trail Blazers by double figures, too. If you look around the league, you won’t find too many teams that have won five straight games by a double-digit margin this season. Juggernaut Boston has only done it twice in 2007-08.

5) One to watch in San Antonio on Saturday.
In many ways you could make the case that Saturday’s trip to San Antonio should be the most highly-anticipated game for Hornets fans of the 2007-08 regular season. The defending champion Spurs have gone 8-1 vs. the Hornets over the past two-plus seasons and New Orleans hasn’t won in San Antonio during the Byron Scott era. But this is by far the most talented and cohesive club the Hornets have had – probably in franchise history.

Realistically, the Hornets are due for a game where they play poorly or don’t shoot well, after reeling off seven straight wins, but you have to believe they see Saturday’s game as a prime opportunity to prove the legitimacy of their 30-12 record.

“The three teams that we measure ourselves against are the Spurs, Dallas and Phoenix,” Scott said. “They are still the best teams in the West as far as I’m concerned. The Spurs are the best team until someone beats them in the playoffs. Any time you play those teams it’s a measuring stick.

“We didn’t play them very well when they were here early in the season, so we’ll see how it is tomorrow.”

Clippers first of five games before All-Star coach cut-off

A few things to know in terms of the race for who will be head coach of the Western Conference All-Star team:

- The "cut-off date" is Sunday, Feb. 3. The West coach whose team has the best record at the end of that day, which is also Super Bowl Sunday, earns the spot.

- Phoenix's Mike D'Antoni is ineligible to lead the West in 2008 because he earned the honor in 2007 and you can't be head coach in consecutive All-Star Games.

- With the Hornets holding the conference's best record right now, that means Byron Scott "controls his own destiny" in this race. If New Orleans goes 5-0, starting tonight vs. the Clippers and concluding Feb. 1 at Sacramento, Scott is in.

- Here are the records of the four clubs who have a legitimate chance entering Friday (remaining games prior to the cut-off date are in parentheses):

New Orleans 29-12 (LAC, at SA, DEN, GS, at Sac)

Dallas 28-13, 1 game behind (LAL, DEN, at Mem, at Bos, at Det)

San Antonio 28-13, 1 GB (NO, at Uta, at Sea, at Pho)

L.A. Lakers 27-13, 1 1/2 games GB (at Dal, CLE, NY, at Det, at Tor, at Was)

- We'll have to double-check this, but I believe in the event of a tie at the cut-off date, the same tiebreakers would apply that are used at the end of the regular season. That could come into play since the Hornets and Mavs will both have played exactly 46 games after Feb. 3.

Anyway, the point is that New Orleans can give Scott a well-deserved "trip" to the All-Star Game if it continues to play the way it has recently.

Tonight's 7 p.m. tilt against the Clippers (visit the Hornets Courtside Live gameday blog for live updates) is the fourth opponent during this five-game homestand that comes to the New Orleans Arena sporting a losing record. New Orleans pounded Seattle and Charlotte, then had an early stumble against Milwaukee before building a comfortable second-half lead.

The Clippers have done about as well as could be expected this season without Elton Brand available. They recently went through a 1-10 stretch, but over their past five games have beaten some pretty good squads, including Phoenix and now-at-full-strength Sacramento. On the flip side, it's hard to imagine their confidence coming in to this one is real high - they've lost five straight on the road, dating back to Dec. 14. If Los Angeles prevails tonight, it will be the Clips' only road win against a team that currently has a winning record.

Dena Krischer of joined us in this Rival Report, doling out a strange and interesting fact about former Hornets guard Dan Dickau, who's a backup for L.A. now.