LeBron, Cavaliers in NOLA tonight

Saturday, December 29, 2007
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

A very limited number of tickets remained available as of Saturday morning for tonight's 7 p.m. home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers and superstar LeBron James, potentially making this the initial home sellout of the season for the Hornets.

This will be the third time I've gotten to see James play in person in the NBA; the first time I saw him, he drained a game-winning jumper over then-Hornets forward Desmond Mason during the 2005-06 season. Incidentally, that was the second game-winning basket for LeBron as a pro and silenced some rumblings that he hadn't been a "clutch" player to that point in his NBA career.

With the Hornets having won four straight games and boasting a 19-10 record, third-best in the Western Conference, this may be the most highly-anticipated game of New Orleans' season so far.
Once again I will be providing in-game updates through our Courtside Live blog. If you can't make it to the Arena, Cox Sports Television is broadcasting the game, beginning with its 6:30 p.m. pregame show. The Hornets Radio Network also begins its broadcast at 6:30.

Five Observations: Hornets 99, Bobcats 85

New Orleans broke it open in the second half Saturday, building a lead of as many as 21 points before Cleveland cut into the margin late, making it a somewhat deceptive 10-point final differential. The Hornets picked up their fifth consecutive win overall and have now triumphed in five straight home games as well, improving to 9-5 at the New Orleans Arena after a poor 4-5 start.

New Orleans improved to 20-10 overall and matched the best start to a season in franchise history through 30 games. It’s been seven years since the Hornets were 10 games over .500 at this stage of the campaign.

David West topped the winners with 27 points and 15 rebounds, while Chris Paul had 20 points, six rebounds and nine assists. Tyson Chandler turned in another double-double at 11 points and 12 rebounds.

Five observations from Saturday’s 10-point victory:

1) Is this starting five better than anyone thought?
Again, we caution, we’re only 30 games into the season. Still, when the 2007-08 NBA season predictions came out and half of them listed the Hornets as a non-playoff team, perhaps no one factored in that New Orleans would have one of the league’s premier starting lineups, from 1 through 5.

With proven veterans Peja Stojakovic (returning from back injury) and Morris Peterson (free-agent signee) joining up-and-comers Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler, the Hornets do not have any major weak links in their first unit. It’s been a while since you could say that. In the post-Katrina era of the franchise, the club has been close to a .500 team, but there has always been at least one glaring weakness among the starters.

I asked Peterson – who started a total of 10 playoff games for three different Toronto teams in 2001, 2002 and 2007 – if this is the best starting group he has played with in the NBA. “I would have to say it is,” Peterson said. “It’s close. I played with Vince (Carter), Mark Jackson, Antonio Davis, but this is right up there with that. We have a great group of guys and I think we’re starting to get more comfortable with each other. That’s making a big difference.”

2) The bench remains a problem area.
On the flip side of the starting five’s tremendous play, Byron Scott has again greatly reduced the minutes he’s giving to the backups. On Friday, New Orleans built a huge lead over Charlotte, but Scott was forced to bring the starters back into the game when the Bobcats sliced the gap to 11 points in the fourth quarter. In the first game of a back-to-back situation, Scott was hoping he wouldn’t have to do that. The reserves’ rough night in Charlotte seemed to affect Scott’s rotation Saturday, as no bench player received more than 16 minutes (Bobby Jackson). As a result, West, Chandler and Paul all logged over 40 minutes of action. The bottom line is that the bench needs to play better in order to earn back Scott’s confidence.

In nearly every game this season, Paul has been rested at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but against Cleveland, Scott opted to leave CP3 in the game, even though the Hornets were up by 14.

3) Defense on LeBron lauded.
James finished with 21 points and six assists, but those numbers were a bit misleading. Through three quarters, the 6-foot-8 superstar forward had only 12 points and was 4-for-12 from the field. “No matter what you do, you’re not going to hold him down for an entire game,” Scott said. “(But) I thought our scheme (was effective) and we did a pretty good job of trying to make it tough on him. We wanted to make sure he was always under duress and forced him to give the ball up. We wanted other guys to try to beat us.”

The rest of Cleveland’s roster was just 24-for-61 (39 percent) from the field.

4) The buzz on… David West.
Nationally, he’s the most underrated player on what has probably been the NBA’s most overlooked team so far. Whether it’s his common name or his fundamentally sound game, he’s still an under-the-radar type, but if the Hornets continue to play like this, that could be changing soon. “I’d rather stay that way,” West said of going unnoticed, both individually and team-wise. “We’re just trying to maintain a certain level of effort and give ourselves the best possible chance to win on a nightly basis.”

If it’s possible to have a quiet 27-point, 15-rebound night, that’s what West did against the Cavs. His methodical performance included between five and eight points in each quarter.

5) Recapping the week.
New Orleans went 3-0 over the past seven days, with convincing wins at Memphis, at Charlotte and vs. Cleveland. There have been many positive signs from the club recently, but one of the best is its consistency against teams the Hornets are expected to beat. It’s fairly rare in the NBA for a team to have a five-game winning streak with zero close calls taking place during the skein. The Hornets have won by double digits in every victory during the current streak.

By comparison, when New Orleans reeled off five straight wins from Nov. 11-17, it needed a game-winning jumper by Paul to beat New Jersey and another deciding basket from West to clip Memphis in overtime.