Five Observations: Hornets 110, TImberwolves 76

Saturday, December 22, 2007
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

Over the past month, there have been plenty of nail-biters at the New Orleans Arena for the Hornets. Saturday’s victory definitely was not one of them. In a game that bore no resemblance to Minnesota’s previous victorious trip to the Big Easy, New Orleans thoroughly dominated. The hosts went up by 10 points after the first quarter and led by as many as 36 en route to their most decisive win of 2007-08.

It was New Orleans’ first one-sided home victory since the Nov. 14 game vs. Philadelphia. The Hornets now receive a three-day break from game action. They’ll return to the floor on Wednesday, Dec. 26 at Memphis.

Here are five observations from Saturday’s 34-point triumph:

1) Peja Stojakovic makes quality return to floor.
The team’s starting small forward was back in the lineup after missing the previous three games with a strained groin muscle. You couldn’t necessarily tell that he’d been out at all. Stojakovic was aggressive in seeking his shot from the get-go, scoring seven points in the first quarter. He finished with 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting. He was limited to 26 minutes in the blowout.

“I thought he played well,” Hornets coach Byron Scott said. “I told him before the game that his minutes would be monitored. He told me, ‘Just wait until I’m breathing heavy, then take me out.’ ” Scott said he will gradually give Stojakovic more minutes over the next few games, letting him build up to his normal playing time. He’s averaging 32 minutes this season.

2) Are struggles at home behind Hornets?
Remember a few weeks ago, when there was a lot of discussion nationally about the discrepancy between the Hornets’ home and road records? It looks like some of that talk was premature. After beating Minnesota, New Orleans has won four straight games on its home floor and is now 8-5 at home and 9-5 on the road. By the way, there were eight NBA teams that entered Saturday with more road wins than home victories. If the past is any indication, by the end of the regular season, there probably won’t be more than one or two.

“We’re starting to play much better at home,” Scott said. “We’re starting to get that comfort level back. One thing you know in this league is that you’ve got to be a good home team (to be successful). It’s a matter of us being more focused (at home).”

3) Scott encouraged by bench performance.
The biggest Hornets weakness over the first 27 games of the season has been the bench, which has underachieved and frequently been inconsistent. On Saturday, the reserves played maybe their best game of the campaign, combining for 44 points on 18-for-35 shooting.

“Hopefully this gives the bench a little more confidence,” Scott said. “We need them to be able to come in and pick up the slack for the starters. I cannot continue to play the starters 40-plus minutes every single night, (because) it’s going to wear us out by the time it gets to April.”

As one example, Scott mentioned Jannero Pargo, who has been in a major shooting slump recently but racked up 10 fourth-quarter points Saturday. He totaled 13.

“Jannero has been shooting terribly the last five games,” Scott said. “Him getting going (in the fourth quarter) is hopefully a sign of things to come.”

4) Two straight routs over struggling, inexperienced West foes are a good sign.
There have been several too-close-for-comfort games against some of the weaker clubs in the West lately, including a two-point win over Memphis and three-point verdict against Seattle. In games where they are expected to win, the Hornets have too often let opposing teams get back into the game after building a double-digit lead. That’s one reason why Scott was pleased to see New Orleans play full-throttle vs. Minnesota, even after the hosts went up big.

There have been several too-close-for-comfort games against some of the weaker clubs in the West lately, including a two-point win over Memphis and three-point verdict against Seattle. In games where they are expected to win, the Hornets have too often let opposing teams get back into the game after building a double-digit lead. That’s one reason why Scott was pleased to see New Orleans play full-throttle vs. Minnesota, even after the hosts went up big.

“For 48 minutes, I thought the energy and the effort was there, just like it was in the (more recent) Seattle game,” Scott said. “We didn’t have a whole lot of lapses. It was an all-around good game for us.” Scott said he and his coaching staff had a chat with the players following the defeat to Portland, in which they emphasized the importance of getting some wins before the schedule gets more difficult later in the season. “We talked about some things the day of the Seattle game, and it wasn’t very friendly,” Scott described. “We’re going to have some tough games coming up. We were telling our guys that we have to start making some hay. We’ve got to try to get some separation between us and some of these other teams in the Western Conference. The last two games we’ve had a mindset of playing very aggressive basketball. We’ve got to continue doing that.”

5) Recapping the week.
New Orleans finished 2-1 over the past seven days, with the lone defeat coming at Portland. Obviously, with the Trail Blazers having reeled off 10 consecutive wins, that loss doesn’t look all that bad right now, especially since it was a tie ballgame early in the fourth quarter. The Hornets have to be pleased to dominate the SuperSonics and Timberwolves in their last two games, the first time they’ve posted back-to-back wins by a double-digit margin since the initial two games of the season (Oct. 31-Nov. 2).

The Hornets now have the fourth-best record in the Western Conference at 17-10.

The rest of December includes three straight opponents with losing records (Memphis, Charlotte, Cleveland), followed by the New Year’s Eve game against Toronto. The opportunity is there to move much further above .500 over the next couple weeks.