February 22, 2011

The Hornets begin the stretch run for the playoffs on Wednesday against the LA Clippers, one of 24 games left on their schedule. Positioned 6th overall in the Western Conference, New Orleans would meet the two-time defending champion LA Lakers in the opening round of the NBA playoffs if the regular season had already come to an end.

But it hasnt.

Fifty days remain in the Hornets regular season and the race for one of the coveted eight Western Conference playoff spots is on in full force. As I am writing this column the final four post season positions in the west are totally up for grabs. Five teams vying for four playoff berths are separated by one and a half games. So, teams could conceivably leapfrog one another on a daily basis.

Heres a breakdown of the Hornets final two months:


DENVER (2-0/ 1 game to play); PORTLAND (2-1/1 game to play); UTAH (1-1/2 games to play); MEMPHIS (1-0/3 games to play).

Last season the bottom THREE playoff seeds in the Western Conference all won 50 games. If 50 wins is the benchmark to qualify this season then the Hornets must go AT LEAST 17-7 the rest of the way to get in. The above schedule breakdown offers both good news and bad.

54% (13 of 24) of their games are at home. 75% of their remaining games are against the west, so wins can lead to a quick reward in the standings as well as head-to-head tie-breakers. Also, fewer than half (45%) of their games are against current playoff seeds. In addition, the Hornets have TWO 10-day home stands (10 games total). Since the Bees have won 71% of their home games so far (20 of 28) logic would indicate they should win at least 7 of those 10. If the Hornets beat all 13 non-playoff teams remaining on their schedule (13) they only have to beat four playoff teams to reach 50 wins.

Of the playoff teams remaining on the schedule the Hornets must play first place teams Boston and @ Chicago as well as Dallas (twice) and the defending champion Lakers in LA. They also have a brutal 5-game/7-day road trip that begins in another country and includes a pair of back to backs. And, despite getting 13 of their final 24 games (54%) versus sub .500 teamsthe Hornets have fewer wins (17) against the bottom teams of the NBA than any other western conference playoff foe. If the Hornets continue to struggle against the lower echelon teams they put tremendous pressure on themselves to get the 17 victories needed to reach 50.

So, how do the Hornets make a playoff push and join the ELITE 8 of the Western Conference? In my opinion these 5 things MUST occur:

Without Okafor (strained left oblique) the Hornets are 2-7 (.222) and allow almost 100 ppg. With Emeka they are 31-18 (.632) and hold opponents to around 92 ppg. Although playing without top ball defender Trevor Ariza (0-3) was difficult, trying to endure a longer stretch without the anchor of their defense has been nearly impossible. In fact, its been puzzling to try and predict the ups and downs of the team sans Mek. Their two wins were at home against a bad Washington ballclub and on the road against title contending Orlando. It will be a great sign if Okafor returns to the form following the All-Star break.

The most season defining statistic for the Hornets in 2010-11 is this: theyre 21-1 when holding opponents to 90 points or less. That means that 64% of the Hornets victories this season (21 of 33) have come when the other team failed to score above 90 points. New Orleans remained in the top 10 in scoring defense, field goal defense, and three point defense for almost the entire first half of the NBA season; however, since holding OKC to 89 points on January 24th the Hornets have allowed 9 of their last 12 opponents to reach the century mark. Only one (Golden State) was a victory.

Although Monty Williams mantra is built around team and defense there is no mistaking the surest route to the post season is through the Hornets two best players. Chris Paul has had some magnificent games this seasondominating without scoring.dominating BY scoringdominating on defensedominating by simply controlling the tempo of games. But, this team in its current configuration requires CP to be a superstar. Some nights that might mean scoring 30 points (which he has not yet done this season). Lets credit opposing defenses for overplaying Chris, for taking the ball out of his hands, for trapping him high, for trapping him big, and for getting physical with him. Still, its imperative his teammates find ways to get the ball BACK TO PAUL when the situation necessitates it. Similarly, David West will have to take over as often as possible. Hes the Hornets main low post option. If this team is going to release pressure on Paul it must start with the two time all-star forward. He is the only Hornet to score 30 points this season (4 times). Theyre among the best 1-2 punches in the NBA.Teams cant take BOTH West and Paul out of games. Im certain that high level play from these two team leaders will be the difference down the stretch.

The pine play this season has been like the economy and their up and down nature has made the reserves inconsistent. This cannot continue for the Hornets to have a successful playoff run. Monty has done a terrific job limiting Chris Pauls minutes (35/game) as he pledged he would at the start of the season, but play behind him at the position has been spotty. The Hornets have already made three trades in search of the right backup point to Paul: Jerryd Bayless (since traded to Toronto), Jarrett Jack (acquired FROM the Raptors), and Willie Green (preseason deal with Philadelphia). But, play ALONG SIDE Paul has also been an issue prompting Williams to pull Belinelli from the lineup in favor of the veteran Green. Green has been great in that role, but Monty prefers having Green and his consistent play on both ends of the floor coming off the bench. Marcus Thornton has provided some stunning instant offenseon occasion. He has also found himself in anonymity on the end of the bench because of defensive lapses. Both Aaron Gray and Jason Smith have had great moments filling in for Okafor, but Williams would prefer to spot them depending on matchups. Veteran David Andersen has shown his ability to hit the mid-range jumper and rookie Quincy Pondexter did a fabulous job in his first start in Atlanta, and has shown steady improvement; but, the Hornets understand how precarious it can be to put too much pressure on a first year player during a playoff push. Okafors return from injury will instantly help the bench, by returning hard working players to their more accustomed roles.

Need I revisit the blown goaltending call in Phoenix again? Or the game-winning three pointer by Paul in New Jersey that rolled around (twice) before falling out? How about just staying reasonably healthy the rest of the season? I know, those of you playing devils advocate will say two losses to Minnesota and one in Sacramento were far worse than those mentioned above. But, every good team loses to bad teamsjust look at the two-time defending champion Lakers (20-point loss to Charlotte, defeat at the hands of Cleveland, and two losses to Memphis!). This team has had winning streaks of 10 and 8 straight games. It has beaten San Antonio TWICE, Boston, Miami, Dallas, Orlando, Atlanta, and Oklahoma City. Its a very good teama playoff teamwhen things are going just right. Thats all I ask. Let all things be equal and the Hornets are a playoff team.

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