Improving Hornets host surprising Bucks tonight

Wednesday, November 25, 2009
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

Despite playing without their best player for the past five full games, the Hornets have gone 3-2, with one of the losses coming by a point at Miami. New Orleans was just 3-7 following the Nov. 13 defeat to Portland, the game in which Chris Paul sustained his ankle injury.

By virtually any measurement, New Orleans (6-9) has played much better over the past week-plus than it did early in the season, showing noticeable progress in several areas, particularly in rebounding and defense. Still, as the Hornets enter a relatively laidback stretch of the schedule (only four games in the next 13 days), coach Jeff Bower is focusing on seeing additional improvement.

The Hornets host Milwaukee (8-4) at 7 p.m. tonight in the New Orleans Arena.

“I think we’ve got a long way to go and a lot of things to continue to build on and work toward,” Bower said at shootaround this morning. “We’re seeking constant improvement on a day-to-day basis.”

Bower was looking forward to being able to hold multiple practices over the next two weeks, something that was impossible recently with so many games scheduled.

“We will be able to clean up a number of areas that we’ve addressed,” Bower said. “We’ll be able to build on some of our concepts from an offensive standpoint, as well as continue to stress the individual fundamentals on both ends of the court.” postgame: Hornets 102, Bucks 99 (OT)

When the Hornets drafted Darren Collison in June, they repeatedly stressed how much of a “winner” the 6-foot point guard was at the college level. If you hadn’t seen Collison at UCLA, the talk may have sounded like a cliché, like something that sounds good in a press conference, but is difficult to quantify.

Well, just six starts into his NBA career, it’s becoming much easier to understand the post-draft assessment of the 22-year-old.

Collison, who helped lead UCLA to three straight Final Four appearances, produced a handful of clutch plays in a comeback win vs. the fast-starting Bucks (8-5). The rookie sent the game to OT by drilling just the fourth three-pointer of his NBA career. In the extra time, he came up with a pivotal steal of Brandon Jennings in the backcourt. With the game tied and less than 10 seconds remaining in OT, Collison's drive through the lane resulted in a Jennings foul. Collison made 1 of 2 free throws to put the Hornets in front for good.

“He’s certainly made winning plays,” New Orleans coach Jeff Bower said of Collison’s recent impact and knack for timely contributions. “He’s got such a sharp head on his shoulders and such a feel for how to play with his teammates. He’s really become an important player on the floor in late-game scenarios.”

Collison credited team defense for holding the high-scoring Jennings to 14 points on 4-for-15 shooting, but Bower also gave a nod to the previously unheralded Collison. If the No. 21 overall pick of this year’s draft continues to play like this, he won’t be under the radar much longer.

“(Collison) had a heck of a challenge trying to contain Brandon Jennings, who’s gotten a lot of exposure, and deservedly so,” Bower said. “But I think Darren has put himself in a position to be really commended for his efforts and effectiveness for our team as well.”

Other news from tonight:

• One player who probably won’t make the highlights or get much mention tonight was Darius Songaila (6 points, 7 rebounds). But it said something about the Lithuanian that he was on the floor essentially for all of crunch time. Songaila said Hornets players are getting more comfortable with each other as the games have progressed. “Obviously with the coaching change, after 10 games, we were in limbo a little bit,” Songaila said. “You don’t know what’s going on. Now gradually things are starting to fall into place. You’re getting more comfortable with the system and rotations.”

The five on the floor with the outcome at stake included Songaila, James Posey, David West and Peja Stojakovic, a group of extremely tested veterans, as well as Collison, who is delivering like he’s been in the league 10 years.

“It’s easy to just give up when things aren’t going your way,” Songaila said of the Hornets trailing by as many as 13 points in the second half. “I think Jeff put the guys out there on the floor who he knew were going to take care of business on the floor. We kept pushing and finally at the end of the game a couple bounces went our way, we made a couple shots and we won the game.”

• The Hornets’ defense continues to improve by leaps and bounds from what it showed over the first two weeks of the season. Milwaukee was held to 39.6 percent shooting and 28 percent from three-point range, with Jennings prevented from getting on a role from long distance.

“It was team defense,” said Devin Brown (13 points, 6 rebounds). “We felt like we made him take shots he didn’t want to take. We didn’t let him shoot those rhythm three-pointers where (Jennings’ defender) is going under the screen. I told (Collison), when you’re guarding him, to get on his hip and funnel him to the big guys. It makes a huge difference.”

Hornets Head Coach Jeff Bower:

“It was just an incredible effort on our players’ part. Good teams can win a game when they shoot 36 percent, when they outrebound one of the best rebounding teams in the league by a 61-49 margin. But, we committed 23 turnovers. Those are things that crack a lesser team with lesser character and lesser vibrance. I want to give them all the credit in the world for battling, winning.”

On finishing each quarter strong: We tried to finish strong, and we tried to finish with the power game. We got shots deep, and we gave ourselves a chance at the foul line. That helped us, and that was a good way to finish each quarter.”

On there being multiple heroes down the stretch: “We kept making the play to tie the game, a stick-back or a basket to get the game back to a tie. Darren (Collison) was able to create a steal. That was the crack that got us ahead for the first time I thought. We were able to hang in there and hang on to finish out the game from that point.”

On Collison’s 3-pointer near the end of regulation: “It was the back-end of the option. (Milwaukee) did a good job on our first two. In a scramble situation like that, guys have to make plays. A difficult play and a difficult scenario, but he stepped up and really came through big.”

Hornets Guard Darren Collison:
On his play tonight: “As soon as I got the ball, I saw time running out, so I decided to take (the three-pointer that sent the game to OT). I felt confident taking it. At that point, we were playing so badly, we had nothing to lose. It was tough all night long. I’m just glad we were able to get the win.”

Hornets Forward David West:
On the game tonight: “We were able to fight back, get it into overtime, and ultimately get the win. Darren has been to two Final Fours. When it comes to competition and pressure situations, it doesn’t get any tougher than that. We knew he could come in and handle it. We expected this from him.”