Five Observations: Hornets 118, Knicks 110

Friday, April 4, 2008
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

For the first time since the 2003-04 season, the Hornets are going to the playoffs. This New Orleans squad will be the best postseason entrant the franchise has ever had in its 20 years of existence.

It was a big-time struggle for most of the game Friday, but New Orleans (53-22) outlasted New York (20-56), pulling away in the fourth quarter with a 31-23 edge. After the game, Hornets owner George Shinn and general manager Jeff Bower congratulated the players in the locker room on wrapping up the trip to the 2008 playoffs.

Although it was a night to celebrate, the party was dampened a bit by a subpar performance against the Knicks. “It was in the fashion we did it (clinching a playoff spot) that I’m not happy about,” Byron Scott summarized in his postgame talk.

Scott was upset by allowing New York to shoot 55 percent from the field and pile up 87 points through three quarters.

“We know there aren’t many teams we could’ve beaten by allowing them to shoot 55 percent like that,” Bonzi Wells said.

Chris Paul had another MVP-type night for the Hornets, notching 33 points and 15 assists. All five New Orleans starters reached double digits in scoring.

Five observations after the eight-point victory:

1) What was wrong with the D?
New Orleans didn’t display much intensity on the defensive end until crunch time, allowing New York guards Jamal Crawford (29 points, 11-for-22 shooting) and Nate Robinson (23 points, 10-for-17 shooting) to have their way for most of the game. The Knicks finished with 56 points in the paint.

It’s probably not a full-blown concern at this point, but New Orleans has given up over 100 points in five of the past eight games. The only time during that stretch that the Hornets played consistent shutdown defense was the Miami game. Obviously, the Heat are about as depleted personnel-wise as any NBA team you’ll ever see.

2) Backup center update.
As we discussed after Wednesday’s game in the blog, the second-string center minutes are up for grabs. Hilton Armstrong made another positive step in the right direction in terms of his bid, netting four points and three rebounds in 14 minutes of action. He was also aggressive on defense inside, partly leading to five fouls. Meanwhile, Melvin Ely was a healthy inactive. Chris Andersen did not get into the game and is still waiting to make his home debut.

3) The buzz on… Julian Wright.
After a fantastic stretch when he was initially inserted into the rotation last month, the rookie from Kansas has been relatively quiet lately. On Friday, he played seven minutes. It appears that his role is starting to diminish somewhat: After a 10-game stretch from March 5-25 when he played at least 17 minutes in every game, Wright has played 8, 9, 10, 5, 19 and the 17 minutes he got vs. the Knicks.

4) Scoreboard watching.
From a bottom-line standpoint, Friday was a great night for the Hornets. The combination of their win and San Antonio’s 90-64 loss at Utah gave New Orleans a lead of 1 ½ games atop the Southwest Division. Since the Hornets (53-22) own the tiebreaker over the Spurs (52-24), it’s looking more and more likely that we’ll see the first division title in franchise history.

Check out this math: If the Hornets go 4-3 the rest of the way, for example, the Spurs would have to go 6-0 to surpass them. That means New Orleans’ magic number for the Southwest crown has dropped to 5. A 5-2 record or better over the final seven games will get it done, no matter what else takes place.

In other West games Friday, Golden State routed Memphis to inch closer to eighth place in the conference. Obviously the closer the Hornets get to sealing the No. 1 seed, the more that race for the No. 8 seed will bear watching.

Later Friday, Phoenix hosted Minnesota; Dallas was at the Lakers; and Houston was in Seattle. We’ll have periodic updates of the entire West playoff race in this blog and on whenever possible.

5) Blog question of the night: Who has been the Hornets’ most underrated player this season?
When a team is 53-22, yet the majority of casual fans may not necessarily recognize anyone on your roster other than a league MVP candidate, it’s probably safe to think that the Hornets have several players who deserve a bit more recognition than they’ve gotten in 2007-08. Here are a few candidates: Tyson Chandler, Jannero Pargo, Peja Stojakovic, Bonzi Wells, David West (can you still be called “underrated” if you’ve made the All-Star team?) and Julian Wright.