West race tightens in spots 5 through 9

Monday, February 14, 2011
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

As recently as a week ago, New Orleans’ cushion on the clubs vying for position at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race was relatively large, making it more realistic that the Hornets might move up the standings ladder than drop. After NOLA’s 2-5 stretch so far in February, however, that’s not necessarily the case. Combined with hot streaks by teams such as eighth-place Portland (4-game winning streak) and ninth-place Memphis (8-2 in its last 10 games), the Hornets are now trying to fend off several foes and maintain fifth place at the All-Star break.

With only four nights of NBA games scheduled prior to the midseason hiatus, New Orleans (33-23) only needs to win one of its two games to guarantee no worse than fifth-place status entering All-Star weekend. If both games against the Warriors and Trail Blazers are losses, it’s possible for the Hornets to fall behind current No. 6 Denver (31-24) and No. 7 Utah (31-24) by the All-Star break. No. 8 Portland (30-24) could also pull into a virtual tie with New Orleans, although the Hornets technically hold the tiebreaking edge based on a 2-0 head-to-head series edge on the Blazers.

Incidentally, New Orleans also holds a tiebreaking edge on Denver (2-0 head-to-head, with only 1 matchup left) and Memphis (1-0 head-to-to-head, with 3 matchups left between March 4 and April 10). The Hornets and Utah are deadlocked at one win apiece in their season series, with two late-season meetings scheduled for March 24 and April 11.

Predictably, the Hornets’ recent rough stretch without starting center Emeka Okafor this month led to them dropping in multiple weekly national power rankings. Here’s what other websites had to say about New Orleans over the past 24 hours:

NBA.com (11th, down 2 spots): “The Hornets need Emeka Okafor back. They're 2-5 and allowing their opponents to shoot 48 percent without him and have lost seven of their last nine overall. After grabbing 32 rebounds in the previous two games, David West had just two on Saturday, as the Hornets were outrebounded 47-26 by the Bulls.”

ESPN.com (10th, down 2 spots): “A 2-7 skid without the ailing Okafor to anchor the D, even after a 10-game winning streak, comes as zero surprise. Beating Dwight Howard's Magic without Okafor, in Orlando, for the second win in that span? Legit shocker.”

SportingNews.com (12th, down 2 spots): “They will head into the All-Star break with back-to-back road games, desperately hoping to turn around a 2-7 slide.”