Hornets.com postgame: Hornets 98, Trail Blazers 97

Monday, January 25, 2010
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

Chris Paul effectively served as a final-possession decoy in narrow victories last week over the Grizzlies and Timberwolves, helping pave the way for James Posey to score game-winning layups. Ironically, this time Paul inadvertently caused the opposing defense to neglect his presence with the outcome at stake.

Trailing by a point with less than 10 seconds left, the Hornets chose not to call a timeout. As he dribbled into the lane and scooped a pass to David West on the left side, Paul fell down, causing two Portland defenders to cover West and leave CP3. That scrambling sequence left Paul wide open for a 17-foot shot, which he drilled for a 98-97 lead with 3.8 seconds to go.

After Portland’s Jerryd Bayless misfired as time expired, New Orleans (24-20) had escaped with its third cliffhanger win over the last four games.

New Orleans entered the month of January with zero road victories against teams above .500, but this was the third since the calendar flipped to 2010 (the others were at Utah and Oklahoma City). Though the Trail Blazers were without All-Star guard Brandon Roy (hamstring) in this one, Portland (27-19) is the best team record-wise that New Orleans has beaten on the road in 2009-10.

So much to discuss after this one, so let’s jump into a few bullet points:

• Although Monday’s trade consisted of New Orleans trading for a backup center, the bigger impact of the transaction was this: Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton will have every possible opportunity to figure prominently in the outcome of this Hornets season. Not in 2010-11. Not in 2011-12. Right now.

By dealing shooting guard Devin Brown, it clears the way for Thornton to take over as Paul’s running mate in the starting backcourt. It also means more playing time for Collison, who will join CP3 in a small but lightning-quick two-point guard alignment.

In his first NBA start, Thornton was superb, finishing with 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting. He ignited the Hornets’ 24-8 run to open the game by reeling off nine quick points and played with his trademark extreme confidence all evening.

Meanwhile, Collison had nine points in 19 minutes, but more tellingly, canned two crucial perimeter shots in the fourth quarter. He has not been making many outside looks lately, but did not hesitate when given the chance to shoot in key situations.

From a big-picture standpoint, there should be no doubt that the Hornets have considerable belief that their two 2009 draft choices are ready to make an impact. Both guys played four years of college basketball, something that appears to have paid off midway through their pro debut seasons.

• Speaking of Collison and Thornton, they joined Paul on the floor for the final few minutes, enabling NOLA to overcome a 96-88 deficit with 3:26 remaining. “They were terrific,” Hornets coach Jeff Bower said of the rookies’ contributions. “Their energy and plays in the guts of the game were big. We went to (the small lineup) to try to zoom it up the floor and get something going.”

• There appeared to be playoff intensity on the floor tonight. These Western Conference counterparts have shared a few heated moments over the past couple seasons, but this one included elbows, flagrant fouls and harsh words exchanged. That helped make it one of the most interesting games to watch all season.

Hornets acquire Gray, deal Devin Brown to Bulls

Who is Aaron Gray? Now in his third NBA season, the 7-footer has been on the New Orleans scouting staff’s radar for several years, prior to his selection in the 2007 NBA Draft by Chicago. Although Gray’s playing time has diminished greatly with the Bulls in 2009-10 compared to his previous two pro seasons, part of that drop-off is due to Chicago’s rare depth at the center position. Joakim Noah and Brad Miller provide the Bulls with an effective one-two punch at the 5, where the 270-pound Gray must play all of his minutes.

On Bulls.com, Gray describes his biggest strength as “my physical play close to the basket and low (post) scoring presence.”

The University of Pittsburgh product is among a dying breed in the NBA – a burly wide body whose offense comes primarily from traditional, back-to-basket moves. The most effective stretch of his NBA career took place during 2008-09, when he started 18 games for the Bulls, who eventually were outlasted in the Eastern Conference playoffs by the Celtics, in a classic seven-game series.

During one 16-game stretch spanning December and January of last season, Gray started 15 times for Chicago. During the final week of the regular season during his rookie campaign, he tallied a career-high 19 points against Toronto.