Rockets lose in Denver; Hornets' division magic number 1

Sunday, April 13, 2008
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

New Orleans (55-25) received more help in the Southwest Division title race Sunday night, when Houston fell in Denver by a 111-94 margin. That Rockets loss reduced the Hornets' magic number to capture their first-ever division championship down to 1.

The Hornets will have the opportunity to clinch the Southwest title in Tuesday's 7 p.m. home game vs. the Los Angeles Clippers. They actually could be crowned Southwest champs as soon as late Monday night, but for that to happen, both Houston (54-26) and San Antonio (54-26) would need to lose. The Rockets are in Utah for an 8 p.m. game, while the Spurs visit Sacramento at 9 p.m.

In another Sunday night game affecting the West playoff race, Dallas (50-31) was stunned by Seattle. The Mavericks would have cemented their status as the conference's No. 7 seed. Instead, it's possible that Denver (49-32) could move into seventh on Wednesday, with a combination of a Nuggets win over Memphis and a Dallas defeat vs. New Orleans.

Lakers beat Spurs, close in on clinching No. 1 seed

Only 48 hours ago, New Orleans (55-25) appeared to be in excellent position to claim the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Now it will take an unlikely scenario of three outcomes to all go the Hornets' way in order for them to earn the top spot.

After the Lakers defeated the Spurs 106-85 on Sunday, the Lakers' magic number to eliminate the Hornets from the chase for No. 1 was reduced to 1. Los Angeles (56-25) only needs to defeat Sacramento on Tuesday in the Staples Center to wrap it up. Even if the Lakers are upset by the Kings in that game, New Orleans would need to beat both the Clippers and Dallas in its final two games to secure the No. 1 seed.

The one positive from Sunday afternoon's national ABC-TV game was a Spurs loss, which drops San Antonio to 54-26. New Orleans' magic number to eliminate San Antonio from contention for the Southwest Division title is down to 1 as a result. However, New Orleans' magic number on Houston in the Southwest is still 2. The Rockets (54-25) play at 8 p.m. tonight at Denver. Should Houston lose that game, New Orleans would be able to clinch the first division title in franchise history on Tuesday vs. the Clippers, if not sooner.

In terms of which club the Hornets will face in the first round of the playoffs, a few days ago it looked like it might be Denver or Golden State, who are vying for the 8 seed. Now New Orleans' opponent is more likely to be Dallas (probable 7 seed) or Phoenix (current 6 seed). Stay tuned.

Five Observations: Kings 94, Hornets 91

In a 24-hour span, the Hornets have gone from holding the pole position in the Western Conference standings, to needing some help to potentially secure the No. 1 seed. Following consecutive losses at the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento, New Orleans (55-25) dropped into second place in the West. The Hornets have the same record as the Lakers (55-25), but Los Angeles holds the tiebreaker advantage based on a better conference record. After leading by as many as eight points in the second half Saturday, New Orleans couldn’t hold on in the fourth quarter, getting outscored 26-18 by Sacramento. Peja Stojakovic’s attempted game-tying three-pointer rattled in and out, then rolled out of bounds just before the final buzzer.

As much as Friday’s Hornets-Lakers game was hyped, and justifiably so, if New Orleans had won vs. the Kings, the Hornets still would have controlled their own destiny despite the much-discussed defeat to L.A. Now, New Orleans could conceivably drop a spot or two further from its current No. 2 slot.

Five observations from the three-point defeat at Arco Arena:

1) Bench struggles factor into tough loss.
The New Orleans reserves were outscored by a 30-8 margin, causing Cox Sports TV to decline selecting a Subway Sub of the Game. One night after a strong game in Los Angeles, Jannero Pargo had a rough shooting outing, going 2-for-9. Like Pargo, the Hornets were minus-12 with Bonzi Wells on the floor. Wells had a quiet night, going 1-for-4 and tallying two points. No other backup played more than 6:01.

2) Chris Paul in midst of rare rough offensive stretch.
During the team’s 1-3 week, the 6-foot point guard has gone 16-for-48 (33 percent) from the field, including consecutive 4-for-13 games in California. It started with his 2-for-11 game vs. Utah on Tuesday. Paul has waited longer lately to look for his own shot in games, instead trying to find the hot hand among his teammates. Paul’s first field goal Saturday came at the 9:00 mark of the third quarter.

3) Sacramento spoilers.
As Cox Sports TV sideline reporter Jordy Hultberg said, Saturday’s loss was a painful one for the Hornets, partly because it was against a non-playoff team. However, in the last six weeks, Sacramento has also beaten Denver, Houston, Golden State and the Lakers. The Kings’ penchant for upsetting superior clubs could actually help the Hornets this week, because Sacramento’s final two games are against San Antonio and the Lakers. It’s a lot to ask of the Kings to win both of those, but if they do, the Hornets would just need to win their final two games to regain the No. 1 spot in the West.

4) Scoreboard watching.
In other West games Saturday, Utah throttled Denver, Portland edged Dallas and Golden State bested the Clippers. From a Hornets standpoint, none of these games directly affected the team’s seeding. However, Dallas now will be locked into the No. 7 seed if it wins in Seattle on Sunday, which is relatively likely. That could be a plus for New Orleans, because if the Mavericks get cemented as No. 7 and therefore have nothing to play for in Wednesday’s game vs. the Hornets, Dallas may rest key players in that one.

It’s kind of hard to believe considering how long this has been close to being finalized, but New Orleans still is not assured of homecourt advantage in the first round. Utah’s victory means that it is still mathematically possible for four teams – the Lakers, Spurs, Jazz and Rockets – to finish ahead of the Hornets in the West standings.

The big game to watch Sunday from a Hornets perspective is San Antonio at the Lakers (ABC, 2:30 p.m.). Either way, New Orleans will benefit from that game. If the Spurs lose, the Hornets will move a step closer to wrapping up the Southwest Division title (it’s important to note that New Orleans does still control its own destiny for the division crown). If the Lakers lose, the Hornets would move back into the No. 1 spot in the West. Of course, a Spurs victory also would mean a deadlock at the top of the Southwest.

5) Blog question of the night: What effect would not earning the No. 1 seed have on the Hornets in the playoffs?
It was never a foregone conclusion, but for several days, if not longer, New Orleans seemed to be in outstanding position to finish in first place in the Western Conference. What is the downside if the Hornets do not claim No. 1? Is there a potential positive of not gaining the top spot?