(For postgame quotes from the Hornets and Knicks, visit the Hornets Courtside Live blog)
If you didn’t get to watch this game on TV, don’t be misled by the final margin of Monday’s visit to Madison Square Garden. This one was a major struggle for the Hornets. Bottom line though, New Orleans avoided back-to-back defeats on its brief Eastern Conference two-game road trip by making all of the big plays in the final two minutes.
The Hornets held a precarious 90-88 lead with 1:50 remaining, before closing the game on a 10-0 run. Chris Paul made a huge driving basket to make it a four-point advantage, then fed Tyson Chandler for yet another alley oop, putting New Orleans in front 94-88 with just over a minute to play. Paul’s conventional three-point play virtually sealed the outcome, making it 97-88 with 43 seconds left.
New Orleans (40-19) never led by more than a handful of points in a game against a struggling New York squad that dropped to 18-42.
“We don’t care how we get them,” Chandler said of the victory. “We know people are going to be aiming for us. This was a very physical, scrappy game. We got more physical and scrappy (later in the game).”
Paul sparked New Orleans’ 51-39 second-half advantage by piling up 19 points after intermission. He finished with a game-best 27 points, along with eight assists. David West netted 19 points, while Chandler produced 15 points and 18 rebounds.
Five observations after the 12-point victory in New York:
1) Victory No. 40 means third straight season of improvement.
The Hornets have gone from 18 wins in 2004-05, to 38 and 39 victories the last two seasons. They’re on pace to win about 55 games this time and would be recognized as the NBA’s most improved team were it not for the complete turnaround in Boston and Portland’s surprising competitiveness without No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden.
Hornets TV analyst Gil McGregor touched on this during Cox Sports TV’s broadcast Monday, but expectations have obviously been raised significantly since the outset of this season. New Orleans’ stated goal in October was simply to make the playoffs, but now players are talking about trying to gain homecourt advantage in the first round of the postseason – or even the No. 1 seed in the loaded Western Conference.
2) The starting unit needs to return to high level of play.
It’s tough to knock the Hornets’ first string, which has been one of the premier starting lineups in the entire NBA this season. But the loss at Washington and the too-close-for-comfort nature of the New York game can be at least partly attributed to inconsistent intensity over the two-game road trip from the regulars. Hornets assistant Charlie Parker said at halftime Monday that the starters were not playing with enough energy early in the game, which led to a 31-27 deficit to New York after the fourth quarter.
Much more tangible than that, you can point to a dip in shooting accuracy from Peja Stojakovic, who was 8-for-26 (31 percent) over the two games. In addition, West was just 13-for-38 (34 percent). Obviously if those guys shoot the way they normally do, the outcomes Sunday and Monday would have been much different.
3) Mike James is earning more playing time.
It was another efficient performance for the 6-foot-2 point guard. He tallied seven points in only 14 minutes, including scoring another key fourth-quarter basket. With Jannero Pargo struggling through a 3-for-10 shooting night, Byron Scott chose to go with James for a large chunk of the fourth period instead of Pargo, who has been the preferred option lately in crunch time.
Remember, only two seasons ago, James averaged 20.3 points per game in Toronto and ranked in the top 20 in the NBA in scoring, so we shouldn’t be shocked by his effective offensive play. He had a very disappointing 2006-07 season in Minnesota after signing a big free-agent deal with the Timberwolves – and he did not perform well in Houston this season either – but he has a chance to regain a significant amount of respect around the league if he can prove to be a solid backup for CP.
4) Rasual Butler benefits from Bonzi Wells’ absence.
Butler looked like he’d be hard-pressed to see much playing time when the Hornets traded for Wells at the trade deadline, but the injury to the 6-foot-5 swingman has moved Butler back into Scott’s rotation. Throughout his three-year tenure with New Orleans, Butler has repeatedly been given bigger chances to contribute due to teammates' injuries or ineffectiveness, ranging from Peja Stojakovic to J.R. Smith to Kirk Snyder.
The La Salle product continued to struggle with his shot Monday. He entered the game shooting 35.5 percent from the field, then missed all four of his attempts at New York.
5) Melvin Ely in, Hilton Armstrong out of the rotation.
After a scoreless, rebound-less game during eight minutes of playing time Sunday in Washington, Armstrong’s spot as the backup center was given to Ely in New York. The Fresno State product responded with a nice effort in 15 minutes of action, grabbing seven rebounds and scoring three points. Some fans complained when Ely was leapfrogged by Armstrong a few weeks ago in the lineup, but it appears as though the UConn alum is back out of the mix.
Ely has been more consistent this season from week to week than Armstrong. Overall, he’s also been more productive statistically, averaging more points (4.2 to 2.9) and rebounds (2.9 to 2.5) despite playing 135 fewer minutes entering Monday’s game. Scott said that he plans to use one or the other in his rotation, but not both. Armstrong was the odd man out Monday.