March begins with Southwest showdowns

Monday, March 1, 2010
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

A 16-game March schedule for the Hornets begins tonight in the New Orleans Arena, with a key home game against the San Antonio Spurs, one of the teams the Hornets are chasing in the Western Conference playoff race. At the moment, New Orleans (31-29) is 3 games behind eighth-place Portland and 3 ½ games behind seventh-place San Antonio.

By the time this month concludes with a home game against Washington on the final day of March, the Hornets will only have six games remaining in the regular season. Will the Hornets be able to gain ground on the Trail Blazers and Spurs over the next 31 days? Will they stay in playoff contention, at the very least? Will an anticipated return to the lineup by Chris Paul provide the additional push New Orleans may need to reach the postseason for a third straight spring? We’ll start finding out the answers to those questions soon.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s in store New Orleans in March:

Monday, March 1 vs. San Antonio (33-24)
Wednesday, March 3 vs. Memphis (30-29)
Friday, March 5 at San Antonio (33-24)

Given that the Hornets are 3 ½ games behind the Spurs, the two matchups over the next five days seem critical. A pair of losses would mean a 5 ½-game deficit (not including the other game in between, of course), while a pair of wins would cut the gap to 1 ½ games. Keep in mind, the Spurs are 2-0 against the Hornets this season, so they only need one victory to lock up a tiebreaking advantage. San Antonio is actually not scheduled to play at all between its two games vs. New Orleans, so if the Hornets were to go 3-0 this week, they would automatically be 1 game behind the Spurs in the standings.
Memphis has crept to within a half game of New Orleans in the race, meaning the Grizzlies could be ahead of the Hornets entering Wednesday’s head-to-head matchup in Louisiana. Memphis hosts Portland tonight in Tennessee.

Monday, March 8 vs. Golden State (17-41)
Wednesday, March 10 at Oklahoma City (35-23)
Friday, March 12 vs. Denver (39-20)

The Warriors, Thunder and Nuggets provide more chances for the Hornets to try to continue to add to their excellent conference record. Inexplicably, New Orleans has a much better record against the West (20-14) than vs. the inferior East (11-15). The biggest upside of that fact is that conference record is one of the key tiebreakers, but obviously the Hornets will need to finish the regular season with a flourish in order for that to even factor into the conversation.
Oklahoma City has been one of the hottest teams in the league recently, putting together a nine-game winning streak that ended last week vs. Phoenix. The March 10 game will decide the head-to-head series between the Thunder and Hornets, which would be of larger importance if the clubs were closer in the standings. Right now, Oklahoma City leads New Orleans by 5 games.
New Orleans defeated Denver in the Nuggets’ December trip to NOLA, but that was without team catalyst Chauncey Billups. Denver is currently locked in a dogfight for second place in the West with closely-pursuing Dallas and Utah.

Sunday, March 14 at Phoenix (37-24)
Monday, March 15 at L.A. Clippers (24-35)
Wednesday, March 17 at Golden State (17-41)
Thursday, March 18 at Denver (39-20)
Saturday, March 20 at Utah (38-21)

Partly due to the first two rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament being held in the New Orleans Arena on March 18 and 20, the Hornets are scheduled for their longest road trip of the season, a critical jaunt that has them visiting three of the West’s five best clubs record-wise.
Phoenix, Denver and Utah are a combined 71-20 on their home floors this season, a 78.0 percent success rate. Although a few weeks ago it appeared as though the Hornets might be able to keep up with the Suns and Jazz in the standings, both teams have opened up relatively insurmountable advantages on the Hornets recently. Phoenix is 5 ½ games in front of New Orleans, while Utah holds a 7 1/2-game edge.
New Orleans prevailed in each of its early-season visits to the Clippers, Golden State and Utah, while losing in overtime at Denver.

Monday, March 22 vs. Dallas (39-21)
Wednesday, March 24 vs. Cleveland (46-14)
Saturday, March 27 vs. Portland (35-27)
Monday, March 29 vs. L.A. Lakers (45-15)
Wednesday, March 31 vs. Washington (21-36)

Talk about a homestand filled with marquee names – Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, Brandon Roy and Kobe Bryant will all visit NOLA over a span of eight days.
Based on the way the standings appear at the moment, you could make an argument that the most critical games of March for the Hornets will be tonight’s game vs. the Spurs and the March 27 tilt with Portland. If the Hornets are to make up ground on the clubs directly in front of them in the West, it stands to reason that their home games against the Spurs and Trail Blazers are as close to “must-wins” as you can get.
This five-game homestand underscores the overall difficulty of the Hornets’ schedule in March. Other than the March 8 and March 31 matchups, every game this month for the Hornets is either a road game, or a home tilt against a quality opponent. postgame: Spurs 106, Hornets 92

More often than not this season, when the Hornets have needed a crucial victory to keep them right in the thick of the playoff race, they’ve gotten it. Tonight, in arguably the most important game of the campaign to date, they were unable to continue their timely positive outcomes. Facing seventh-place San Antonio, New Orleans (31-30) trailed for the bulk of the night. After the Spurs closed out a double-digit victory, the Hornets had fallen 4 ½ games behind their Southwest Division rivals.

There was more bad news in Memphis, where eighth-place Portland (36-27) stretched its lead over New Orleans to 4 games. As a result, with just 21 games remaining in the regular season, the Hornets are the furthest they’ve been from a playoff berth standings-wise in quite some time.

More on tonight’s defeat:

• Defense has been the biggest problem for the Hornets of late. Despite getting 30 points from Marcus Thornton, 18 points from Emeka Okafor and 15 assists from Darren Collison, the Hornets never seriously threatened the Spurs because they couldn’t come up with stops on D. San Antonio went up by as many as 20 points, after racking up 58 points in the first half. Dallas had 69 first-half points vs. New Orleans on Sunday. “They had answers and kept coming up with plays,” Jeff Bower said.

• Collison played all of the first 46 minutes, 48 seconds of this game, with the Hornets needing him on the floor to run the attack. Asked whether fatigue affected Collison late in the game, Bower said, “I definitely think it was a possibility. The amount of minutes he played and the effort that was put into (Sunday) night’s game has to wear on you, particularly this close of a turnaround (between games). But as far as long-term, I know he will be fresh and ready to go Wednesday against Memphis.”

• Bower, on the significance of tonight’s loss: “We have to be ready to play the next game. One night isn’t going to determine everything, win or lose. Tonight was a hard one for us. It’s not a shock; we knew it was going to be very difficult. But we’ve got to come back and be ready to play on Wednesday, which we will.”

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