Five Observations: Hornets 112, Grizzlies 99

Saturday, February 9, 2008
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

New Orleans (34-15) capped a 4-0 season-series sweep over Memphis on Saturday, but for a third time this season, the Grizzlies did not go quietly against their Southwest Division counterparts. Memphis – which recently traded longtime face of the franchise Pau Gasol – was within 87-84 with 6:37 remaining before New Orleans went on a 11-0 run to grab a 14-point lead, the Hornets’ biggest margin of the evening.

Two of the previous three meetings between the Grizzlies and Hornets went into overtime, with David West and Chris Paul scoring game-winning baskets in a pair of two-point victories. West was superb Saturday with 33 points and 10 rebounds, while fellow starting forward Peja Stojakovic torched the nets with six three-pointers and 26 points.

Five observations from a 13-point win at the New Orleans Arena:

1) Another reason why Chris Paul is an MVP candidate: Two points, 16 assists.
One of the most interesting things to watch this season has been Paul’s developing understanding of what his team needs from night to night, based on the way he and his teammates are performing offensively. Some nights Paul has carried the Hornets, including three times when he’s racked up 40-plus points. Other games, like Saturday’s, when he can’t find his shooting touch but other starters are thriving, he’s content to distribute and let others carry the load.

“At one point Chris came over to me and said, ‘Man, I can’t BUY a bucket tonight,’ ” Byron Scott said. “Sometimes that’s how it is. But he did a good job as far as getting other guys involved. David did a great job of being ready from the start and Peja, since 2008 began, has been lighting it up. We got enough contributions from enough guys to hold that Memphis team off.”

2) Is the bench turning a corner?
It’s been quite a while since the reserves turned in a clunker-type performance, which is a positive sign after the second unit was criticized harshly by Scott in the first two months of the season. On Saturday, the subs combined for 30 points on 9-for-18 shooting, with Jannero Pargo (13 points) leading the way. Ryan Bowen had nine points and four rebounds. Bobby Jackson added six points and a pair of three-pointers in 18 minutes.

“They’re getting there,” Scott assessed of the unit. “Ryan is such an energy guy, J.P. is playing extremely well and I think Bobby is rounding into form. We still need more, but right now I’m happy with the way we’re going.”

3) The buzz on… Hilton Armstrong.
Making his second start in place of Tyson Chandler (flu), Armstrong had 11 points but was disappointed to only pull down three rebounds in 33 minutes. “It’s felt good being out on the court again,” Armstrong said. “Tonight I was a little upset with my rebounding. To have only three in that many minutes is not good at all. But I think I played pretty well on help-side defense. I got two blocks, which was good.”

Armstrong said there are two things he is emphasizing in his bid to earn more playing time: “I need to focus more, and offensively slow down more, take my time. I need to see what the defense is doing (first), then attack and make my move. I’ve been working with (assistant coach Kenny Gattison) on my footwork.”

The UConn product said he was surprised Wednesday when he was told he would be starting, especially since his minutes had been cut drastically before the Phoenix game. “It caught me off guard,” Armstrong said. “I had been out of the rotation and had a couple DNPs. I figured it would be maybe Melvin (Ely) starting, with me backing him up. But I’m happy to be in that position and I have to try to take advantage of it.”

During his postgame chat with the media, Scott sounded encouraged by Armstrong’s pair of starts. “I’m happy with the way Hilton has played the past two games,” Scott said. “Hopefully when Tyson comes back, he’ll continue to play that way.”

4) The buzz on… Rasual Butler.
Butler started in Morris Peterson’s stead, after finding out only about 20 minutes before the game that Mo Pete would sit due to a back injury. As I discussed with Butler though, if anyone should be accustomed to a constantly-changing role in the NBA, it’s the La Salle product. Over the two-plus seasons he’s been a Hornet, he’s gone from a temporary starter to out of the rotation to all points in between.

“I didn’t have any idea I was going to start,” Butler said of the surprise news about Peterson. “But one thing I always try to do is stay ready, because you never know what’s going to happen. “I thought I was able to show this team and this city what I’m capable of the last two years. I’m just waiting for my opportunity and staying professional.”

If you look at Butler’s 2007-08 stats, it’s clear where he must show improvement to regain a consistent spot in Scott’s rotation. His field-goal percentage entering Saturday was a career-low 35.3, while his three-point rate of 33.3 is his poorest since his rookie 2002-03 year in Miami.

5) Recapping a 2-1 week.
As February wins go, Wednesday’s triumph in Phoenix was huge, ending a three-game losing streak and a third straight win vs. the conference's best team record-wise. New Orleans still needs to solve its confounding difficulties in matchups vs. Utah after an ugly defeat there Monday, so we’ll see what happens when the Jazz visit in late February. The victory over Memphis obviously fit into the category of “games you’re supposed to win.”

The Hornets travel to Chicago and Milwaukee for back-to-back games Tuesday and Wednesday against opponents with similar struggles. They’ll get a full week off after the Bucks game and are guaranteed to have easily the best record at the All-Star break in franchise history.