Near full strength, Hornets face Kings in home opener

Friday, October 30, 2009
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

With Emeka Okafor showing few signs Wednesday at San Antonio of having missed the entire preseason schedule, New Orleans (0-1) is approaching having a full complement of healthy players. Only Ike Diogu (knee) is expected to be unavailable for Friday’s 7 p.m. home opener vs. Sacramento. At shootaround this morning, Scott said Diogu likely won’t play, but Scott did not rule out the possibility of an appearance by the 6-foot-9 power forward.

A few notes from shootaround at the New Orleans Arena:

• On paper, the Kings obviously represent a much easier task for the Hornets than the Spurs did two days ago. However, for reasons that are difficult to understand, Sacramento has given New Orleans fits in recent years. Last season, the Kings went a league-worst 17-65, but one of their six road wins was in NOLA. Later, in a March 31 game at Sacramento, the Hornets needed a Rasual Butler trey at the buzzer to escape with a victory.

“The thing we want to see tonight is improvement on both ends of the floor,” Scott said. “We still have a sour taste in our mouth from the first game. This is our home opener, so hopefully we’ll come out with a lot of energy.”

• Scott addressed many fans’ complaint that LSU product and rookie Marcus Thornton was inactive Wednesday at San Antonio, despite Thornton showing promise during preseason.

“People need to understand that he’s a rookie and he’s still young,” Scott said. “We’ve got some veteran guards in front of him. He’s still learning. I had a long talk with him and Darren (Collison) yesterday. Both of them are competitive guys who want to play.

“They’re not discouraged by (receiving limited playing time) by any means. They just know they’ve got to keep working, come in early and just try to grasp everything we’re doing at both ends of the floor. It’s just going to take a little bit more time. By no means do I think they can’t play. Both of them showed during preseason that they can play. They’re going to be a vital part of what we’re going to do in the future.”

• Okafor said he was a bit surprised by how he did not get fatigued over the 29 minutes he logged in his first NBA game action since April. But he said he actually expected to quickly adjust to his new team on the court.

“I was able to watch my teammates for a month (during training camp and preseason),” said Okafor, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds vs. the Spurs. “Their style of play and knowledge of the game made it easy for me to come back and get into the flow. My conditioning was a little bit better than I expected it to be. I wasn’t as tired as I thought I’d be. I was pleased with that.” postgame: Hornets 97, Kings 92

It hasn’t taken Emeka Okafor long to prove why he could become an extremely valuable offseason acquisition – or to demonstrate that preseason may be a bit overrated.

The 6-foot-10 center, who did not suit up for a preseason game, recorded his second straight double-double to open the season tonight. More importantly, he provided two huge blocked shots in the final 10 seconds. Okafor’s pair of rejections preserved a narrow victory for New Orleans (1-1) in its home opener.

Acquired in a July trade with the Bobcats this summer, Okafor has been one of the biggest brightest spots of the Hornets’ initial two games of the season. He totaled 18 points and 10 rebounds in the blowout loss at San Antonio, then came through in the clutch vs. Sacramento. In the final minute alone, he had a putback dunk to give the Hornets a two-point lead with 43 seconds left; rejected a Tyreke Evans shot in the lane at 7.6 seconds; then swatted away Kevin Martin’s three-point attempt from the left corner, which could’ve tied the game with 3.1 seconds remaining.

Both final-minute blocks by Okafor (11 points, 13 rebounds) came on situations in which he was playing help defense. On the rejection of Evans, the Kings rookie point guard had driven by Julian Wright, but Okafor snuffed out the shot attempt. On the Martin block, Okafor saw that Chris Paul had gotten picked out of the play, so Okafor slid over to near the sideline to deflect Martin’s long-distance try.

“I’m just happy that I was able to contribute,” Okafor said, when asked about the immediate impact he’s made with his new club. “Considering that I didn’t have a preseason, to be able to come in and have a couple decent starts, (it’s been positive) to be able to put everyone’s minds at ease and not worry too much about (my play).

“Preseason is important, (but) you can go through training camp and still be tired during that first (regular season) game. It helps you get in better position to get into shape, and it helps with (team) bonding, and getting to know your teammates better on the court.”

Okafor added that he has adjusted more quickly on the defensive end at this early stage as a new Hornet.

“I’m still trying to get comfortable with the offense and figuring out which spots I need to be to get an easy bucket,” he said. “I’m still trying to search that out.”

Other notes from the five-point win:

• One major area of concern so far for the Hornets has been rebounding. The Kings held a 52-43 board advantage that seemed bigger than that, partly because they grabbed several caroms in crucial situations. On a few second-half possessions, Sacramento grabbed multiple offensive boards, drawing groans from the sellout crowd of 17,306 fans.

The Hornets also committed a serious basketball faux pas in the final minute when they allowed Sacramento’s Jason Thompson to grab a rebound off a missed Jon Brockman free throw. That allowed the Kings to essentially set up for the final shot, trailing by only a point.

“They were more physical, more aggressive,” Byron Scott said of the Kings. “Our guys were watching the (shot) instead of boxing out. And the Kings were able to push us under the basket. If we had boxed out, we would’ve been able to get those rebounds.”

• An interesting strategy change by Scott consisted of substituting for Paul with about six minutes remaining in the first quarter, the earliest I can remember CP3 being replaced without foul trouble. Scott said the decision was based on Scott's objective of wanting to always have either Paul or David West on the floor at all times. In the past, there have been extended stretches when both All-Stars were resting – and the result often was a big run by the opposition.

• The Hornets’ bench was outscored 30-24 and outrebounded 17-12, but that actually signified noticeable progress after getting dominated by the Spurs on Wednesday. Scott said he was encouraged by the improvement from the backups. Scott is hopeful that the reserves will make more strides after getting adjusted to three “new” players, including Darius Songaila, Bobby Brown and Peja Stojakovic, who was a starter in past seasons.