Five Observations: Hornets 111, Bucks 107

Wednesday, February 13, 2008
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

What a fitting way for the Hornets to finish off the best first half of a regular season in franchise history. Down a point with 15 seconds remaining, Peja Stojakovic drilled a go-ahead three-pointer from the left wing to give New Orleans a 109-107 edge. Stojakovic’s open shot resulted from a double-team on Chris Paul, who fed Stojakovic on his huge basket.

Paul, who was ill enough before the game that he did not warm up, iced the victory by canning two free throws with 5 seconds left, making it a four-point advantage. CP3 finished with 21 points and 10 assists, one of six Hornets in double-figure scoring. Tyson Chandler added 15 points and 16 rebounds.

New Orleans received more good news later Wednesday when Phoenix (36-16) lost 120-118 at Golden State. The Hornets’ victory, combined with the Suns’ defeat, moved New Orleans (36-15) into sole possession of first place in the Western Conference standings by a half game.

In the second part of our two-night overview of the 2007-08 Hornets season at the All-Star break, here are five keys to success in the second half of the season:

1) More production from the bench.
You would’ve been shocked if I did NOT list this as the first key. Although the bench has performed better of late, sparked by several solid games by Jannero Pargo and returns from injury by Ryan Bowen (sprained knee) and Melvin Ely (fractured eye socket), the reserves need to be more consistent, in order for Byron Scott to keep his starters’ minutes reasonable down the stretch. If New Orleans reaches the postseason, it’s likely that every playoff preview will list the Hornets’ bench under “biggest weakness.” But it would make everyone feel a lot more confident if the backups play well enough over the final 31 games to make that not such an obvious choice.

2) A run of good health must continue.
Ely and Bowen have missed double-digit games to injury, while starters Peja Stojakovic and Morris Peterson were sidelined for a handful of games apiece, but other than that, New Orleans has been remarkably healthy – in stark contrast to 2006-07, when Stojakovic, Chris Paul and David West combined to miss 117 games.

The Hornets have essentially proven that all they really needed last season to be a playoff team was to have their full complement of players available. With the depth of the roster being questioned around the league, it’s critical that each of the starters stays on the floor over the final two months of the regular season.
3) No March fade this time.
The third month on the calendar has been a killer to the Hornets’ playoff hopes for two years running. In 2005-06, the team was 31-25 before an eight-game losing streak and 3-11 record in March dropped New Orleans out of the top eight in the West. Last season, the Hornets went 5-10 in March, including opening the month with six straight defeats.

There’s an obvious reason why you shouldn’t expect a similar drop-off this time, though: New Orleans appears to be an infinitely better team now than the ones that finished 38-44 and 39-43 the past two seasons.

4) More accuracy from perimeter role players.
Based on previous career numbers, three Hornets supporting players who rely heavily on jump shots are currently well below their norm in terms of shooting statistics. It would be a huge boost for New Orleans if Morris Peterson (40.1 field-goal percentage in 2007-08), Bobby Jackson (38.1) and Rasual Butler (35.1) can raise their accuracy rates from the outside. In Peterson’s defense, he has taken a unusually high number of his attempts from three-point range, which has led to a lower overall percentage. Mo Pete’s three-point percentage of 37.9 is actually above average and second-best on the team.

5) Hornets need to improve at protecting homecourt.
Although New Orleans has impressed by compiling the NBA’s second-best road record, its 17-8 home mark is the poorest among the top seven teams in the Western Conference standings. The good news is the Hornets have played much better since a 3-4 start at the New Orleans Arena. It’s also encouraging to note that the last three home games have averaged 15,733 fans, highlighted by a sellout vs. Memphis on Feb. 9.

The rest of the February home schedule consists of several quality West matchups, such as Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and Utah (incidentally, the Jazz game was just added to ESPN’s schedule). Tickets for all of these games are selling well right now, raising the possibility that New Orleans will soon add to its current sellout total of two.

Hornets wrap up first half; All-Star nearly here

New Orleans (35-15) will close what has been the best first half of a season in Hornets franchise history with a 7 p.m. game tonight in Milwaukee. Earlier this week, I was invited to appear as a guest on, one of the Bucks' fan websites. I provided my answers to a handful of Hornets-related questions they had. As always, feel free to comment on the article and my opinions about the Hornets in this blog.
I'll be a little delayed in recapping the Milwaukee game tonight, since I'm attending the NBA All-Star Jam Session kick-off event at the Convention Center. Through the magic of TiVo, however, I'll be watching the Hornets-Bucks broadcast on Cox later in the evening.
Speaking of All-Star in New Orleans, we couldn't be more excited about the festivities that will take place here over the next few days. With the Hornets having such an incredible season, it's been a little tough to shift a great deal of focus on the site to All-Star Weekend yet, but we will be providing wall-to-wall coverage on beginning Friday.
We expect to provide live updates from the New Orleans Arena in our Courtside Live blog during All-Star Friday, Saturday and Sunday's All-Star Game. Those updates from the Arena will begin at 8 p.m. (Central time) on Friday, when the Rookie Challenge tips off.
Also, I'll be spending as much time as possible following Chris Paul, David West and Byron Scott throughout the weekend. With Peja Stojakovic also competing in the three-point contest Saturday, it's going to be an action-packed few days for the Hornets.