Five Observations: Rockets 106, Hornets 96

Saturday, March 8, 2008
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

Under most circumstances, you’d expect a 37-point night from Chris Paul and a total of 11 New Orleans three-pointers (out of 21 attempts) would result in an easy victory for the Hornets. Except Houston’s Tracy McGrady actually had a bigger offensive night than Paul, piling up 41 points – and the Rockets one-upped the Hornets by draining 14 treys.

In a playoff-like atmosphere at the Toyota Center, Houston (42-20) picked up a significant regular-season win, notching its 18th straight victory, tied for the fourth-longest streak in NBA history. Despite Paul’s fantastic individual performance, which also included 11 assists, New Orleans (42-20) was caught in the standings by its Southwest Division counterparts. The Rockets took a 2-1 season-series edge, putting them technically ahead of the Hornets and into third place in the Western Conference. The Hornets dropped to the No. 5 spot (Utah is No. 4 due to its lead atop the Northwest Division).

Five observations from the 10-point defeat in Texas:

1) Julian Wright solid again off the bench.
After back-to-back tremendous outings by the rookie, Wright didn’t put up similarly large numbers Saturday, but still was effective enough to log 29 minutes. Remember, not too long ago, the Kansas product’s name was frequently appearing on the inactive list. Wright totaled nine points at Houston and continues to show noticeably improved confidence in his jump shot. He drilled a three-pointer and went 4-for-8 from the field. Although overall the Hornets were not effective defending McGrady, he drew the assignment and was OK at times in keeping the Rockets’ star guard in front of him.

2) Halfcourt offense sputters without David West.
The Hornets’ All-Star power forward missed his third straight game with a sprained left ankle. While it would be disingenuous to use injuries as an excuse in this game – after all, Houston is without All-Star center Yao Ming for the rest of the season – in slow-paced games the Hornets need West more than usual.

In the victories vs. Atlanta and New Jersey, the Hornets were able to create steals and get ample easy buckets in transition. That didn’t happen against the Rockets, forcing the Hornets to have to generate nearly all of their scoring in their halfcourt attack. Paul did as much as he could to create open shots, but New Orleans was ineffective in post-ups, often getting the ball stripped by Houston defenders or missing close-range shots. That’s one area where West makes a significant difference, because he can get you some easy hoops in a slow-down game. I’m not sure how many fast-break points the Hornets finished with, but at one stage in the third quarter, they had zero.

3) The trade with Houston… two weeks later.
Obviously the pros and cons of the Feb. 21 trade-deadline deal with Houston can’t be completely assessed until this season is over, especially since it appears both of these teams are headed to the Western Conference playoffs. Bonzi Wells was expected to make the biggest difference among players changing teams in the trade, but his injury has resulted in him only playing three times, with the Hornets losing all of those games. Meanwhile, the trade seems to have had a positive effect on Mike James, who is shooting the ball better as a Hornet and has contributed well when he’s gotten double-digit minutes (he only played five minutes in Houston).

Bobby Jackson has been slightly more effective in his new uniform as well. Even better for the 6-foot-1 combo guard, Houston has won all seven games in which he’s appeared for the Rockets. Houston was 4 1/2 games behind New Orleans in the standings at the time of the trade, but have closed the entire gap by winning every game it has played since Jan. 29.

4) Recapping a 3-2 week.
New Orleans sandwiched losses at Washington and Houston around victories over New York, Atlanta and New Jersey during a busy seven-day period. Overall not a terrible week, but not great either to come out of this group with three victories. With the way the Western Conference race is going, a 3-2 stretch means you actually are probably losing ground.

At the same time, New Orleans went 2-1 without West in the lineup and continued to show improvement on its home court, where the Hornets were underwhelming during November and December.

5) A huge pair of home games this week.
After a rare three-day hiatus from game action Sunday through Tuesday, the Hornets will play two of their biggest home contests of 2007-08, hosting San Antonio on Wednesday and the Lakers on Friday. Those are the two best teams in the West right now, and if New Orleans has designs on trying to making a push for the Southwest Division title, Wednesday’s game is huge. The Spurs are going to be extremely difficult to catch based on the way they’ve played lately, but if they best the Hornets in that game, they will also wrap up the head-to-head season series and the tiebreaker that comes with it. By the way, next weekend concludes with a matchup at Detroit on ABC, making it three straight Hornets games against NBA title contenders.