Five Observations: Hornets 122, Timberwolves 90

Wednesday, April 9, 2008
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

Wednesday NBA update: Phoenix hands San Antonio a 96-79 defeat. The Hornets' magic number to wrap up their first division championship in team history is down to just 2 as a result of the Spurs' loss. The magic number for New Orleans to wrap up the No. 1 seed is 3 over the Lakers (53-25), because unlike the Spurs, the Lakers still can hold the tiebreaking advantage over the Hornets.

It’s official: The 2007-08 regular season is the best in the 20-year history of the New Orleans Hornets franchise. The Hornets (55-23) led by just two points at halftime Wednesday against pesky Minnesota (19-59), but throttled the Timberwolves by a 74-44 margin after intermission, to set the single-season team record for victories.

Peja Stojakovic paced New Orleans in scoring with 24 points, including five three-pointers. Fellow starting forward David West added 22 points, while Chris Paul shook off a two-point first half by pouring in 17 points in the second half. He finished with 19 points and 16 assists on the night.

New Orleans now heads into a big matchup Friday at the Los Angeles Lakers (53-25). The Hornets would end the Lakers’ mathematical chances of grabbing the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference by winning at Staples Center. Five observations from the 32-point victory at Target Center:

1) The franchise’s new best team.
After three straight non-playoff seasons, including a dismal 18-win campaign in 2004-05, it may be easy to forget how relatively successful the Hornets have been since joining the NBA as an expansion team in 1988. In the first two New Orleans seasons and prior to their arrival in the Big Easy, the Hornets regularly qualified for the playoffs and posted winning records. Still, in their finest years, they were always on the cusp of being an elite team, but never quite there.

As the current players have frequently said lately, this may not be the most talented team in today’s NBA. It may not even be the most talent on paper that the Hornets have had over their two decades of existence. But the pieces fit together extremely well, making for superb chemistry that gets the most out of the team’s collective talents and ability. Plus, Paul is the only Hornet in team history who has even been mentioned in the Most Valuable Player race late in the season, let alone having a legitimate shot at actually capturing the trophy.

2) The buzz on… Julian Wright.
The first-round pick from Kansas looked as good as he has in this recent stretch of games, scoring nine points and grabbing seven rebounds in 20 minutes of action. With Bonzi Wells and Jannero Pargo settling nicely into their roles off the bench, keep an eye on how Wright performs over these final four games of the regular season. His ability to cut down on a few mistakes with the ball and play under control could weigh heavily into how large his role will be during the postseason. He was shaky at times during Tuesday’s game vs. Utah and can’t afford to have spells like that in the playoffs.

3) The buzz on… Hilton Armstrong.
The UConn product had only two points and one rebound over 13 minutes of action Wednesday, but time would appear to getting short in terms of Melvin Ely’s or Chris Andersen’s opportunity to claim the minutes at backup center. There are only four games left in the regular season, including Friday’s key game at the Lakers. Ely received four minutes of PT after the Hornets went up by a huge margin in the fourth quarter; Andersen joined Rasual Butler on the inactive list.

4) Scoreboard watching.
It was a rare quiet night in the Western Conference on Wednesday, other than a big game in San Antonio between the Spurs and Suns that is going on as we speak. A Spurs loss would be their 25th of the season, meaning the Hornets would only need two more victories in their final four games to reach 57 wins and secure the Southwest Division title. They are guaranteed to have the tiebreaker on San Antonio. We'll have a comprehensive playoff-race update Thursday in the blog, including all of the results from Wednesday night's games.

5) Blog question of the night: What’s your take on the Wells/James trade?
With New Orleans compiling the best record in the West at the Feb. 21 trade deadline, it was easy to wonder if it was really necessary for the Hornets to make a deal with Houston and change the roster. The trade for Bonzi Wells and Mike James (in exchange for Bobby Jackson, Marcus Vinicius and Adam Haluska) was initially followed by a three-game losing streak, but New Orleans has gone 18-5 since. How do you view that exchange now, with the playoffs starting in 10 days?