Five Observations: Hornets 100, Bulls 86

Tuesday, February 12, 2008
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

New Orleans closed Tuesday’s trip to Chicago with a flourish, outscoring the hosts by a 17-4 margin over the final minutes to pull away and pick up a third straight win. David West (team-best 27 points) netted 11 fourth-quarter points to key the Hornets’ 28-18 edge in the final stanza.

Chris Paul (25 points, 14 assists) and Peja Stojakovic (27 points, 6-for-9 three-point shooting) also turned in strong games, combining with West for 79 of the club’s 100 points. New Orleans trailed 50-43 at halftime but outscored Chicago 57-36 after intermission.

"In the second half, we did a much better job of matching (Chicago's) intensity and energy," Byron Scott said. "I told our players we had to get our act together in the second half and they responded."

Also of note, Rasual Butler got the start in place of Morris Peterson (back) and scored just seven points, but he drilled a pair of key fourth-quarter jumpers to seal the win, the latter a three-pointer to put New Orleans up 97-86 with 1:28 left. Tyson Chandler (4 points, 16 rebounds) returned to the starting lineup, which moved Hilton Armstrong back to the bench. He played 14 minutes. Meanwhile, Melvin Ely received a DNP.

Over the next two nights, we’ll examine the noteworthy developments of 2007-08 so far. Here’s a look at the five most pleasant surprises of the first half of the season:

1) Ahead of schedule, Hornets look like an elite team.
Prior to the tip-off of the 2007-08 regular season, no one believed New Orleans would be in position to have the best record in the Western Conference this deep into the schedule. If you read the preseason predictions, the Hornets were expected to vie for one of the last two playoff spots, probably with Golden State and the Lakers, and were not even a lock to MAKE the postseason.

I think most people around the league thought this team’s young talent would make it a potential force eventually, but that New Orleans probably wouldn’t be a legitimate contender until 2008-09 or later. With Chris Paul, 22, Tyson Chandler, 25, and David West, 27, representing the youthful core of the franchise, if the Hornets had snuck into the 2008 playoffs with about 43 to 46 wins, many outsiders would’ve considered that a successful season. To the surprise of many, New Orleans is poised to win 50-plus games for the first time in a decade.

2) Chris Paul emerges as an MVP candidate.
Generally speaking, most players make at least a couple appearances in the All-Star Game before they’re considered worthy of mention in the MVP discussion. Back in October, the 6-foot point guard was obviously considered one of the game’s brightest young talents and a rising star, but he had yet to make the All-Star Game or appear in the NBA playoffs.

Four months later, he’s a first-time All-Star and a bona fide candidate in the MVP conversation. Hornets fans began chanting “M-V-P!” for Paul at the Jan. 28 game vs. Denver, but even a slightly more objective source, NBA.com, currently ranks him No. 2 behind only LeBron James in its “Race to the MVP” feature. 3) Peja Stojakovic returns to form.
After he missed 69 games due to a back injury last season, just about every discussion regarding the small forward entering 2007-08 revolved around his health. These are a few of the questions I heard from people around the NBA this summer, which I’m sure many of you heard as well: Is Peja’s back injury going to bother him the rest of his career? Is Peja ever going to be able to play the bulk of an 82-game schedule again? Even if he does make it through future seasons, is Peja ever going to resemble the player he was in Sacramento? Is he ever going to come close to justifying the large, five-year contract he signed in July 2006?

Well, we’re 50 games into this season. Stojakovic has only missed five games, and none of those absences were a result of his back ailment. His scoring average of 18.2 is his best in three seasons. His three-point percentage of 46.6 is the best of his 10-year career. His free-throw percentage of 92.5 is near the best he’s ever had, which is saying something. It took a year longer to get here than he had hoped, but his decision to sign with the Hornets looks like a great one – he’s surrounded in the starting five by talent and one of the best distributing point guards in the NBA.

"He's in a groove right now," Scott said. "We're trying to get him 13 to 18 shots a game."

4) David West becomes an All-Star; Tyson Chandler is even better in Year 2 with the Hornets.
West’s All-Star nod is another development that belongs in the “ahead of schedule” file. This conference has been so loaded with talented guys at his position in recent years that the common opinion about the Xavier (Ohio) product’s All-Star odds usually went something like this: “He’s a very good player and very underrated, but there are just too many great forwards in the Western Conference for him to have a shot at the All-Star Game yet.”

Meanwhile, when a player like Chandler turns in a breakout year like he did in 2006-07 that is nothing like any of his previous five NBA seasons, the skeptic in you can’t help but wonder if it’s a one-time thing. There are many recent examples in the league of players who have produced what ESPN.com’s John Hollinger calls “fluke years.”

Well, not only has Chandler shown that the way he played last season was no aberration, but he’s actually been noticeably BETTER in his second season as a Hornet. He’s averaging a career-high 12.2 points, the first time in his seven NBA seasons that he’s in double digits. He’s also grabbing nearly exactly the same number of rebounds as he did a year ago, at 12.3 per night.

5) A guy who wasn’t even in the NBA last season is a key bench member.
Talk all you want about some of the quirky aspects of Ryan Bowen and the things that have quickly made him a fan favorite, but the bottom line is he has helped the Hornets win games. Bowen has been a valued member of the bench, after spending parts of 2006-07 recovering from hip surgery and playing briefly overseas in Spain and Israel.

In 3 ½ months, the 6-foot-9 Iowa product has gone from a guy that basically only diehard NBA fans had heard of or seen play, to a nice addition to a second unit that has had its share of struggles throughout the first half of the season.

"He does a lot of things that don't show up in the stat sheet," Scott described after Tuesday's win. "When he came into the game, our energy level sky-rocketed."



Hornets dip but remain in top five of three polls


NBA.com (4th, down 1 spot): “Wednesday’s double-OT win over the Suns was an absolute classic and the Hornets’ 13th straight win in overtime (an NBA record). Fascinating stat though: The Hornets are last in the league in free throw attempts per possession (0.22). One would think that a team that doesn't get to the line often would struggle in close games.”
Hornets.com says: The primary reason New Orleans ranks No. 30 in the league in getting to the charity stripe is because its roster consists of several players who rely heavily on perimeter shots. Four different key Hornets – Peja Stojakovic, Morris Peterson, Bobby Jackson and Rasual Butler – take 47 percent or more of their total field-goal attempts from three-point range. Peterson may be the most “trey-reliant” starter in the NBA, with three-pointers accounting for almost three-fifths (58 percent) of his shot attempts. He’s taken 195 three-pointers this season, but just 139 shots from inside the arc.

Dime Magazine (5th, up 1 spot): “They won the Game of the Year in Phoenix last week, when Chris Paul scored 42, Jannero Pargo destroyed Steve Nash, and Peja Stojakovic nailed the game-winner in Amare’s eye. And the Hornets did it without Tyson Chandler.”
Hornets.com says: New Orleans caught a break in a way in that Chandler’s flu bug hit during a stretch when the Hornets only played two games over a seven-day period. New Orleans went 2-0 without the 7-foot-1 center, but the squad is glad to have him back on the floor tonight in Chicago.

ESPN.com (5th, down 2 spots): “So they’ve wobbled a bit since that fairy-tale promotion to No. 1. The Hornets, however, still lead the mighty Southwest and are on pace to finish 57-25, which would exceed the previous franchise record for wins (54).”
Hornets.com says: Entering the game at Chicago, New Orleans would need to go 21-12 the rest of the way to finish 55-27 and break the team record for wins. How difficult will that be to achieve? Well, of the Hornets’ 33 remaining games, 19 are against teams that currently have winning records.

SI.com (7th, down 3 spots): “This year’s All-Star hosts should be in a festive mood. Last week’s thrilling double-OT victory over the Suns snapped a three-game losing skid and improved their record to 3-0 this season against Phoenix.”

SportingNews.com (8th, down 6 spots): “After being embarrassed by Deron Williams, Chris Paul goes for 42 as Hornets end three-game losing streak and improve to 3-0 vs. Suns.”
Hornets.com says: Looking for the most impressive item on the team’s resume this season? We probably can start with New Orleans’ 3-0 sweep vs. Phoenix, including two wins on the Suns’ home floor.