Five Observations: Hornets 114, Clippers 92

Tuesday, April 15, 2008
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

The Hornets have fielded many competitive teams over their 20-year history, but none were as good as this current squad. They’ve had several teams compete for a division title in the past two decades, but none have ever finished the season in first place.

So it was probably fitting in this season of Hornets firsts that New Orleans captured its first-ever division championship in the final home game of the 2007-08 campaign. The Hornets shook off a two-point halftime deficit Tuesday, outscoring the Clippers by a 65-41 margin.

"It took us three years to build to this point," said Hornets coach Byron Scott, alluding to the team's 18-64 mark in the 2004-05 season. "When you look at the teams in our division, this is a great acheivement. We've got to be proud of what we've accomplished, but we realize that the second season is about to begin, and we have to be ready."

(Other notes from Scott's postgame chat with the media: Bonzi Wells did not play Tuesday due to an illness; Scott is hoping Game 1 of the first round will be played Sunday, to allow the Hornets an extra day of practice and preparation).

With the crowd frequently chanting “M-V-P” for Chris Paul in the last home game before he makes his NBA postseason debut this weekend, Paul’s performance mirrored that of his team’s. Paul was quiet in the first half, scoring only four points, but he racked up 18 after intermission. He totaled 22 points and 12 assists for the game.

David West dominated, keeping New Orleans close in the opening half and netting 32 points for the game.

After the game, each Hornets player wore black “Southwest Division champions” T-shirts and hats. The team plans to raise the division-championship banner to the rafters prior to their first home playoff game, which will take place either Saturday or Sunday.

New Orleans still has a chance at the No. 1 seed, but it is contingent upon Tuesday’s Sacramento-Lakers game that just tipped off in Los Angeles. If the Lakers beat the Kings, the Hornets will be locked into the No. 2 spot, rendering Wednesday’s visit to Dallas moot from a standings perspective. Hornets-Mavericks will be televised by ESPN and is now a 6 p.m. start, instead of the original 7:30 tip.

Here’s the blog question of the night:
What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic about the Hornets’ chances of advancing deep in the 2008 postseason?
After each of the final two games of the regular season, we’ll take a look at the starting five and key reserves as the Hornets enter the 2008 playoffs. Tonight we begin with the first string. These questions were asked on Hornets.com in late September:

1) The buzz on… Chris Paul.
How much will he improve his perimeter accuracy in his third NBA season?

Significantly. His performance in this category is a huge reason why he’s an MVP candidate now, after making the All-Star team for the first time. He has upped his overall field-goal percentage 43.7 to 48.5 this season, as well as increasing his three-point rate from 35.0 to 36.6.

2) The buzz on... Morris Peterson.
Will he prove that his reduced role during his final season with Toronto was a fluke?

He’s been an excellent fit in the Hornets’ starting lineup, but his minutes have been similar to what he saw in Toronto last season. He played a career-low 21.3 minutes per game in 2006-07 and is averaging 23.7 now. Peterson hasn’t shot well overall (41.7 percent) but the threat his poses as a three-point shooter (39.1 percent) is valuable in a starting lineup with several teammates who draw major attention.

3) The buzz on… Peja Stojakovic.
How much better can he make the Hornets in 2007-08?

He’s proved to be the missing piece for this team. His health is one of the major reasons New Orleans has been the second-most improved team in the NBA this season (only Boston, powered by the additions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, has made a bigger jump). Stojakovic has played in 76 of the team’s 81 games. If everyone had known that was going to happen, expectations for the Hornets would have been much higher.

4) The buzz on… David West.
Is he poised to move into the next tier of power forwards?

This one was answered once and for all in February, when he joined Paul as a member of the Western Conference All-Star team. The Xavier (Ohio) product is averaging career-highs in points and rebounds. The list of power forwards who are still universally ranked above West in this conference have gotten very brief.

5) The buzz on… Tyson Chandler.
Was his breakout 2006-07 a one-time occurrence or how he’ll play throughout the rest of his NBA career?

Considering he’s played even better this season than he did in 2006-07, there is no way you could call it a “one-time” thing. Some of the early-career problems Chandler experienced, including persistent foul trouble, have been solved. As a result, he has cemented his status as one of the NBA’s premier rebounders. Boosted by an incredible number of alley oop dunks, Chandler’s offensive production has never been better.