For a team that has shown such an uncanny ability to win close games over the past two seasons, perhaps it was fitting that New Orleans (48-29) would clinch a playoff berth on the strength of more late-game heroics.
Down by three points with time ticking down in regulation, a scrambling Rasual Butler tracked down an errant pass and sank an improbable 28-foot heave from near the right sideline to force overtime in Miami. In the extra session, David West's 20-foot jumper from the top of the key gave the Hornets a two-point edge with 8.8 seconds remaining. After a Dwyane Wade turnover, New Orleans put the game away with two Peja Stojakovic free throws. The Hornets sealed their second straight trip to the postseason, the first time they've qualified for back-to-back playoffs since 2003-2004.
Although statistically this game didnt add to the tally due to the four-point final margin, New Orleans is 16-5 in games decided by three points or less since the beginning of the 2007-08 campaign. The Hornets also held a 13-game winning streak in overtime contests, prior to their Feb. 20 defeat at the Lakers.
Whether its been West, Chris Paul, James Posey or Rasual Butler, the Hornets knack for coming through with key baskets with the game on the line is a major factor behind their 8-1 record this season in three-points-or-less games this season.
Seven days after Butler connected on one of the biggest shots of the season a three-pointer at the buzzer to edge Sacramento 111-110 he drained another momentous trey. This time, Wade left the door open for New Orleans by missing one of his two free throws with less than 10 seconds to go in regulation, keeping it at 79-76.
On the ensuing possession, Paul tried to dish to Butler beyond the perimeter, but the ball deflected off Butler and trickled toward the right sideline. With several players pursuing the loose ball, Butler tracked it down, turned and fired a prayer toward the rim that wouldve been led to just about an automatic H in a game of H-O-R-S-E.
I was aware of the clock and thought I could get off a pretty good shot under the circumstances, Butler said. I just got it up and luckily it went down for us.
Im just happy the shot went in, we clinched the playoffs, so now we can start (focusing more on getting) a better position.
Other developments from South Beach:
West had one of his worst shooting games of the season until the OT period, that is. West finished 8-for-22, at one stage missing 13 straight shots, but drilled three huge buckets to spark the Hornets 14-8 edge in extra time. It just seemed like he was having a tough night getting the ball in that basket, Hornets coach Byron Scott said of the All-Star forward. But once we got that reprieve and got it into overtime, it seemed like he couldnt miss anything. West: It was just a matter of having that confidence to keep attacking. You cant worry about the last (shot). You just have to worry about the next (shot). Im one of the guys who no matter how many (shots) come out, I think the next one is going to be good. Once we got to overtime, I knew I had to make some plays for us.
After coming off the bench in the previous two games, Stojakovic made his first start since March 2. He was 7-for-18 (5-for-12 on treys) and finished with 24 points. Peja was outstanding, Paul assessed. Coming off ball screens, he really opens up the court for us, because now (the defense) cant sag in and dare us to shoot, because hes one of the best ever to do it.
Sean Marks, who finished with six points and five rebounds in 22 minutes, had an interesting, succint analysis of the game. New Orleans led virtually the entire way, appeared to be in dire straits late in regulation, then pulled out the victory. Marks description: It went from being a game that we had in hand, to a good win, to a terrible loss, then to a fantastic win. So we had all the emotions there.
Stojakovics return to the starting five means Julian Wright heads back to the bench. Wright played 10 minutes, scoring two points and picking up three fouls. His basket was his first since three games ago, part of a regression thats taken place over the past week. Before the last two games, I thought his confidence was pretty high, Scott said. I dont know where his confidence is right now. But I know he realizes he can play a lot better than he has the last two games. I think bringing him off the bench will help him get back into that groove hes been in.
Scott had several words of caution about Tyson Chandlers health status, saying that the 7-foot-1 center needs rest to heal his ankle injury but its not possible for that to happen sufficiently until the season ends. Every game that he plays it gets worse and worse, Scott told Hornets radio host Joe Block. The only thing that can heal him is rest, and thats probably in June. The farther we go in the playoffs, the less effective hell probably be, which is hard to say, because we need him. In a lot of ways, hes the heart and soul of our team. But just watching him jog (during Mondays practice) didnt look good. Were just going to have to wait a week to see how he feels. It now appears as though if Chandler does return prior to the playoffs, it may only be for the teams final regular season game at San Antonio a week from tomorrow.
HORNETS POSTGAME QUOTES (courtesy Miami Heat)
On the game:
My main objective tonight was to try and play the best defense I could on Dwyane Wade. It felt pretty good. I got a little bit of space. It is a shot I really shoot every day against Coach in practice.
On the game:
I thought D-Wade got more aggressive. He got into the lane and was passing the ball. He found James Jones for a couple of shots. I thought we did a good job of hanging in there. Rasual hit an unbelievable shot to get us another opportunity.
On Rasual Butlers shot at end of regulation:
You are always hoping (for Rasual Butlers shot to go in). That was a big shot for us. Luckily Rasual did it for us. It gave us another chance in overtime. He is the man.
On Rasual Butlers shot at end of regulation:
It was a scramble. It was a crazy shot. We got the luck of the draw. I thought they might try to foul me while I was pushing. Rasual hit an unbelievable shot. We knew once we got to overtime we had a shot.
"I just have to give the guys a lot of credit for just hanging in there; we made some mistakes to allow them to get the lead and things like that. It was just a big win for us.
On clinching the playoff spot:
Its just what weve been doing all season long. It seems like were trying to keep our head above water while all these guys are trying to heal. It was good to see Peja (Stojakovic) back because thats the scoring weve been missing.
Its a good feeling. To clinch a second straight playoff is a good feeling for our guys and were going to take it. I congratulated them in that locker room. Even though its not our main goal, its still one of our goals because now you can look forward to the postseason.
On the play that sent the game into overtime:
We tried to run a play to get the ball back in C.P.s (Chris Paul) hands and I think Miami got their hands on the ball and it just turned into just see if we could get a good shot or just a good look at it and the ball got tipped again and Butler kind of just ran it down and luckily for us he had pretty good awareness about looking up to the clock and seeing he had to just heave it up there and as soon as he let it go Im just looking at it and thinking that might have a chance of making it. Then it was just all net and I couldnt do anything but just stand there because I couldnt believe he just made that shot and I cant believe we have the opportunity to go into overtime after some of the things we allowed to happen in fourth quarter. I just think our guys did a heck of a job in the overtime as far as taking advantage of the situation. We got lucky to get into overtime and we just talked about coming out aggressively in the overtime period and try to put the game away.