Suns (22-24), Hornets (31-18)
It was over when
Chris Pauls off-balance three-point heave between two Phoenix defenders bounded off the backboard, allowing Phoenix to narrowly escape a New Orleans comeback. The Hornets were down by eight points with only 29 seconds remaining, but nearly pulled off a mini-miracle when Paul drilled a three-pointer, then made three free throws. After two Suns turnovers off inbounds passes, the Hornets had a chance to pull off a stunner, but came up just short. Marcus Thornton also had a chance to force overtime a few seconds before the buzzer, but his close-range shot rolled off the rim, leading to a long rebound and Pauls attempt to win it. (Update: replays showed Phoenix's Grant Hill touched the ball after Thornton's shot hit the backboard, but the play was not reviewable on instant replay).
Hornets MVP: Paul was thisclose to capping what wouldve been one of the most incredible individual late-game efforts of his NBA career. As it was, he tallied six points in the final 17 seconds, part of an outstanding Sunday performance. The four-time All-Star finished with 26 points and 12 assists, including going 10-for-10 on free throws. Paul was money from deep two-point range, looking a lot like retired mid-range marksman Sam Cassell from 20 feet.
Hornets Sixth Man of the Game: David Andersen took advantage of his biggest opportunity to contribute of 2010-11. The native of Australia packed six points and six rebounds in 18 minutes of action, helping keep the Hornets close in the first half. Emeka Okafor (strained hip) was sidelined for the entire second half, making it even more critical for Andersen and Jason Smith to play well. Okafors status for Tuesdays home game vs. Washington is uncertain, but if Okafor is unable to play, Smith was given the starting nod at the outset of Sundays second half.
The buzz on
the impact of consecutive road losses on the Hornets and the Western Conference standings. Bear with me as I try to explain one convoluted aspect of the playoff race.
Based on the NBAs current playoff-seeding procedures, a team that wins its division is guaranteed a 1, 2, 3 or 4 seed, regardless of record. In the case of Northwest Division-leading Oklahoma City (30-17), that means as long as the Thunder remain the top team in their division, they cannot fall below a No. 4 seed.
As a result, the third-place team in the ultra-competitive Southwest Division (right now likely to be New Orleans or Dallas, but obviously there are two-plus months to go), cant finish higher than No. 5, because three of the top four slots will be taken up by division winners.
However, unlike in the NFL, the NBA does NOT guarantee a division winner homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Its already happened a few times in the recent past, but a No. 5 seed CAN be awarded the homecourt edge on a No. 4, if that five seed has a better record.
How does all of this directly impact the Hornets? Right now NOLA and OKC are virtually tied for fourth place in the West standings, both 13 games over .500. Even if the Hornets pull ahead of the Thunder record-wise, OKC will be officially listed fourth and NOLA fifth. But dont let that trick you: If the fifth-place team possesses a better record than the fourth-place team, No. 5 holds the upper hand on homecourt advantage. That's one reason why Wednesday's game in Oklahoma City will be an important one for New Orleans.
Blog question of the night: After one of the best January performances in team history, the Hornets are scheduled to play a dozen games in February. What should be their goal in terms of wins and losses? Here are the opponents:
Home (6): Washington, L.A. Lakers, Minnesota, Chicago, L.A. Clippers, Houston
Road (6): Oklahoma City, New Jersey, Orlando, Golden State, Portland, Minnesota