With tip-off of Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinal series between New Orleans and Denver less than 24 hours away, the fan website At The Hive gathered together writers who cover the team to ask several key questions about Hornets-Nuggets. The following are my responses to At the Hives series of questions:
What is the most dangerous obstacle facing New Orleans in the first round?
Chauncey Billups' potential ability to transform the Nuggets into a formidable playoff team for the first time is a legitimate concern. Denver has had virtually no success in previous postseasons, but it has never had a point guard like "Mr. Big Shot." I expect Billups to make the Nuggets' offense much better in crunch time and elevate the play of his teammates. Kenyon Martin has been ineffective during the recent first-round exits, while Carmelo Anthony has made vrelatively little impact. If Billups can get his starting forwards to perform closer to their regular season form, it will require a tremendous effort by the Hornets to win the series.
Let's say the home team wins the first six games. Do you think this Hornets team is capable of winning a Game 7 this time around, and if so, what's changed since last year?
I think the Hornets understand the mental aspect of the playoffs much better after the experience of 2008, including the Game 7 loss. Several players have mentioned that the biggest thing they learned from the Spurs was how important it can be to stay composed and not get rattled if things don't go your way early in a series. San Antonio never wavered last year after being down 2-0 or 3-2 in that series, an emotional maturity that impressed Hornets players. Hopefully the Hornets won't have to face a similar deficit in this series, but I think in general they seem better equipped to deal with the ups and downs of the playoffs now than they were last spring.
Peja Stojakovic played Denver well in four games this season and could be an X-factor. Is there any reason you saw for that during the season, and who do you think has a more productive series Peja or J.R. Smith?
My theory on Pejas success is that Denver was one of the most aggressive opponents in terms of forcing the ball out of Chris Paul's hands. The downside of that strategy is it means more open shots for other players, including Peja. I heard a few media members float the idea this week that the Nuggets did a better job than anyone of late of defending CP and the Hornets, after they held New Orleans to 88 points on March 25. But Peja didn't play in that game, so the scrambling strategy was less risky. If he's on the floor and is left open often as a result of double-teams on Paul, the Hornets hope Peja will make Denver pay by draining three-pointers. As far as who will be more effective between Peja and J.R., Im not sure because it's mostly based on who is hitting their shots, but certainly J.R. had the better regular season.
Are you concerned with the Hornets from a mental perspective right now? Paul looked on the verge of tears after the Spurs loss, and this team has endured a really painful final month. Do you think the psychological beating the team took will have any bearing in this series?
It's always tough to forecast if there will be any carryover from the way the team finished the regular season (2-6 in last eight games). But I think this is where Tyson Chandler's return may be huge from a psychological standpoint. The players know that they haven't had a complete team lately. By Tyson returning - even if it's not at 100 percent - there appears to be so much more potential to do damage in the playoffs. I also believe having so much time off between games can only help the players view the playoffs as a fresh start for everyone.
What's your ideal backup big man rotation? Who's the first big in, who gets the most minutes, and is it worth trying to work Hilton back into the swing of things?
Obviously the big-man rotation depends greatly on how many minutes Chandler will be able to play. As long as Chandler is as mobile as he looked in San Antonio the other night, the only reserve who will have a definitive role may be Sean Marks, for say 10 to 12 minutes. In terms of Hilton as well as Melvin Ely I would guess that they will get their chance to contribute at some point as well. Byron Scott and Chandler have been very candid in saying that Chandler's ankle condition will likely only get worse as the playoffs progress, so if he gets to the point where he can't go anymore or can't play starter minutes, the Hornets will probably need to use every big guy on the roster.
There are a lot of crazy good offensive players between these two teams. CP3, Melo, West, Billups, Peja, J.R. and Nene can each go off at any time. Who will be the most important defender on either team, i.e., which single player's defense will be most crucial to his team's success?
Individually, James Posey and Rasual Butler won't get any breathers on defense against some of Denver's explosive scorers, so they are critical. Also, since the Nuggets are more athletic virtually across the board than the Hornets, I think help defense and communication could be make-or-break from a New Orleans perspective. This is another area where the coaches always credit Chandler with making a big difference, as a vocal "conductor" of the defense from his vantage point in the paint.
... and prediction time. Who ya got and how many games?
I think it's going to be one of the most entertaining series of the first round, with so many young stars on both sides (I also like Blazers-Rockets and Hawks-Heat for the same reason). Most people seem to be expecting a long series. Hornets in 6 or 7.