Grip on fifth place in West tenuous

Tuesday, February 8, 2011
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

After compiling a franchise record-tying 10-game winning streak from Jan. 9 through Jan. 26, it appeared as though the Hornets might be able to climb into the top four of the Western Conference standings by the All-Star break. Two weeks, a pair of costly injuries to starters and a 1-5 stretch later, a greater concern may be holding off conference rivals including the Jazz and Nuggets.

With five games remaining prior to the team’s one-week midseason hiatus from game action, New Orleans (32-21) will try to end a three-game losing streak at New Jersey on Wednesday. The Hornets have not dropped four in a row all season. The only other time they lost three consecutive games – in mid-December – they responded with a record-breaking comeback vs. Sacramento, followed by a 29-point thumping of Utah.

New Orleans remains just 2.5 games behind No. 4 Oklahoma City, but with the Thunder holding the tiebreaking advantage based on a 3-1 season-series victory, the Hornets have even more ground to make up to catch the Northwest Division leaders. NOLA is 1-3 since Emeka Okafor was sidelined in the loss at Phoenix and 0-2 without Trevor Ariza. Meanwhile, sixth-place Utah (31-22) has crept to within a game of New Orleans, with No. 7 Denver (30-22) only 1.5 games back.

The recent drop-off in play also affected the Hornets’ standing in another area, with them slipping two spots apiece in each national power ranking we survey each week. Here’s our Tuesday glance at what national websites are saying about the Hornets:

NBA.com (9th, down 2 spots):“The Hornets’ defense held together in its first game without Emeka Okafor, but not surprisingly, it fell apart against the Thunder and Lakers with Trevor Ariza also getting hurt. Chris Paul's brilliance (21 points and 15 assists) was almost enough to overcome both absences against L.A.”

ESPN.com (8th, down 2 spots):“Just as the recent 10-game win streak was actually more impressive than its 11-1 start, New Orleans' post-streak struggles are more worrisome this time. Way more thanks to the injuries to Okafor (oblique) and Ariza (ankle).”

SI.com (10th, down 2 spots):“What's wrong with the Hornets is no mystery: Center Emeka Okafor and small forward Trevor Ariza are both among the top quarter of NBA players at defending their respective positions, helping mold the identity of what has become a top-five defense. But Okafor has been out four consecutive games with a strained oblique, replaced by journeyman Aaron Gray; and Ariza has missed the last two with a sprained ankle, with rookie Quincy Pondexter subbing in. Not surprisingly, the Hornets have dropped three in a row, capped by Monday's home loss to lowly Minnesota, in which they yielded 104 points (12 over their season average), including 22 second-chance points (again, 12 more than they usually allow).”

SportingNews.com (10th, down 2 spots): “With C Emeka Okafor, F/C Jason Smith and F Trevor Ariza all dealing with health issues – and Chris Paul playing on a bad ankle – the Hornets are in for a tough stretch.”