February home-heavy, but full of formidable opponents

Sunday, January 31, 2010
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

Saturday’s thrilling come-from-behind victory at Memphis closed the book on one of the best months in Hornets franchise history. By going 12-5, New Orleans tied a team record for victories in a month.

January transformed the Hornets from a below-.500 team, at 14-16, to a clearly-improving squad that has its sights on making an ascent in the Western Conference seeding race. New Orleans (26-21) did so while playing 11 of the 17 games in January on the road, where the Hornets had previously faltered big-time.

On paper, February is not nearly as hospitable from an opposition standpoint – 10 of the 13 games are against plus-.500 teams. On the other hand, unlike in January, the Hornets don’t leave the friendly confines of New Orleans Arena often, playing only five road games.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s in store for New Orleans in February.

KEY HOMESTAND
Monday, Feb. 1 vs. Phoenix (28-21)
Wednesday, Feb. 3 vs. Oklahoma City (26-21)
Friday, Feb. 5 vs. Philadelphia (16-31)

The inexplicable trend of the Hornets beating Western Conference teams but losing to Eastern foes continued on the weekend, when they defeated the Grizzlies after falling to the Bulls, both in overtime. New Orleans would love to see its excellence against the West take place again, at least in the first two games this week, both against teams that currently are tied with the Hornets in the loss column. Sure, we’re not even at the All-Star break yet, but New Orleans can lock up the tiebreaker against OKC with a win. By beating Phoenix on Monday, NOLA would also guarantee at least a 2-2 tie in its head-to-head series with the Suns.
The 76ers game is a concern, partly because the Hornets have already lost to Philadelphia once. Philly also has a better road record than home mark, which – like the Hornets’ success against the West – probably defies explanation.

SOUTHEAST SUPER BOWL WEEKEND TRIP
Saturday, Feb. 6 at Charlotte (24-22)
Monday, Feb. 8 at Orlando (32-16)

The Bobcats are playing exceedingly well right now, currently 3-1 on a six-game West road trip. This will be their first home game following that trek. They are 9-1 in Charlotte since Dec. 22. Meanwhile, the Magic have been very inconsistent in recent weeks, but are always difficult at home. This New Orleans at Orlando will be televised nationally by TNT; the last time the clubs met in Florida, ESPN was there to broadcast the Hornets’ nightmarish Christmas visit.
The team is expected to travel to Florida immediately after the Charlotte game. Several Hornets players have mentioned trying to attend the Saints’ Super Bowl game in Miami on Feb. 7, including Chris Paul.

CELTICS WRAP UP FIRST HALF
Wednesday, Feb. 10 vs. Boston (29-16)

Paul and nemesis Rajon Rondo had to be separated after the final buzzer when the Hornets and Celtics played on Nov. 1. So much has changed for New Orleans since that game, including more than a handful of players filling drastically different roles. This is the final NOLA game prior to the All-Star break and the close of Mardi Gras festivities. The Saints' post-Super Bowl parade has already been scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 9, win or lose.

POST-MARDI GRAS HOMESTAND
Wednesday, Feb. 17 vs. Utah (28-18)
Friday, Feb. 19 vs. Indiana (16-32)
Sunday, Feb. 21 vs. Houston (25-22)

The Hornets hope they finally solved the Utah hex when they won at EnergySolutions Arena on Jan. 4, but the Jazz are playing much better now than they had been early this month. Utah has gone 10-2 since the loss to New Orleans, only losing at Memphis and at Denver.
The Houston game could represent another pivotal game in the West race, partly because the Hornets and Rockets have split two matchups so far. Keep in mind, after this Feb. 21 meeting, they won’t face each other again until the final day of the regular season.
Indiana will be the first Hornets opponent in two weeks to sport a losing record when the Pacers visit the Hive.

CENTRAL BACK-TO-BACK
Tuesday, Feb. 23 at Cleveland (38-11)
Wednesday, Feb. 24 at Milwaukee (20-25)

It’s definitely not a bad thing when you don’t have to face LeBron James until game No. 57 of the season, which is what the Hornets will be playing when the visit Ohio. Cleveland has been scorching-hot, winning eight straight games. Milwaukee hasn’t resembled the team that began the season 8-3, going just 12-22 since. Rookie point guard Brandon Jennings is having an excellent debut season, but his shooting numbers have dropped drastically in recent weeks.

WEEKEND ON ESPN
Friday, Feb. 26 vs. Orlando (32-16)
Sunday, Feb. 28 at Dallas (30-17)

Both games against marquee opponents will be televised by the Worldwide Leader in Sports. The game against the Magic was recently added to ESPN’s schedule, replacing Clippers-Suns (Clips games have started to fall by the wayside from national TV after Blake Griffin was ruled out for the season).
The Mavericks currently have a bit of a cushion on the Hornets with a four-game edge in the Southwest Division, but the Hornets could grab a 2-1 season-series lead by winning in Dallas.