Big Easy Buzz Blog - February 1, 2011 postgame: Hornets 97, Wizards 89

Tuesday, February 1, 2011
By: Jim Eichenhofer,
Hornets (32-18), Wizards (13-35)

It was over when… Chris Paul dropped in a mid-range floater with just over three minutes remaining, leading to a Washington timeout with New Orleans leading 92-78. The Hornets won their sixth straight home game, improving to 20-5 in Louisiana this season.

Hornets MVP: Filling in at starting center for the injured Emeka Okafor, Jason Smith provided as quality a performance as anyone could’ve possibly imagined, tallying a career-high 20 points. He was 9-for-11 from the field. By comparison, over the previous eight games, he scored a combined 22 points.

“I didn’t expect that kind of production from Jason,” Monty Williams said after the game. With a prior career-high of 14 points for Smith, it’s doubtful anyone did, but several teammates noted Smith’s energetic start to the game, when he scored 10 of the Hornets' first 16 points. He already had three dunks by the 5:47 mark of the first quarter.

“We’re going to ask him to play big for us,” said Willie Green, a four-season teammate of Smith’s, dating back to their Philadelphia days. “Especially because we know he’s capable of it. It’s good to see a player develop the way Jason’s developing, especially after maybe not getting the opportunity (to play more) in Philadelphia.”

Hornets Sixth Man of the Game: Although his playing time has dipped somewhat in recent weeks compared to early in the season, Green is still being counted on for the kind of game he had Tuesday. Green finished with an efficient 11 points on 5-for-7 shooting.

The buzz on… picking up the slack for the team’s injured center, its top interior defender and rebounder. Normally when you ask an NBA player if they’re going to try to change their approach as a result of a teammate being injured, they usually will quickly say something like “no, I just have to play my game.” But when Smith was asked the same question Tuesday, he acknowledged that he must make a few adjustments to help fill Okafor’s shoes. For one, Smith will try to make a conscious effort to stay closer to the basket, something that is a big part of Okafor’s approach on both ends. Depending partly on whom Smith is paired with in the frontcourt, his offense often consists of mid-range or perimeter shots, but that’s already David West’s strength, meaning it behooves Smith to move closer to the paint.

“Mek is a very aggressive player,” Smith said. “He’s at the rim all the time… he’s helping us get offensive boards, tip-ins. I think I tried to do that tonight. I tried to play aggressively.”

It paid off big-time in Tuesday’s game, with the third-year pro making each of his first nine field-goal attempts, including a string of dunks and tip-ins. Smith actually didn’t find out that he would be in the starting lineup until the team’s routine pregame meeting, which takes place around 6:20 for 7 p.m. home games (media is allowed in the locker room from 5:30-6:15).

Blog question of the night: Earlier on Tuesday, Monty Williams was named Western Conference Coach of the Month for January, after leading the Hornets to a 12-4 record. That victory total tied a New Orleans franchise record. What mid-term grade do you give the team’s first-year head coach?

Backup bigs must compensate for Okafor absence

The Hornets announced this morning that starting center Emeka Okafor will be sidelined for the next one to three weeks. Based on that timetable, the seventh-year pro would miss between four and nine games. The latter nine-game timeframe represents the stretch between today and a Feb. 16 game at Portland, which is New Orleans’ final contest prior to the All-Star break. The Hornets (31-18) won’t play again for a full week, resuming post-All-Star action Feb. 23 vs. the Los Angeles Clippers.

At Tuesday’s shootaround, Hornets first-year head coach Monty Williams said the decision on which player will start in place of Okafor will be made later today. Jason Smith started the second half of Sunday’s game at Phoenix, when Okafor was unable to return after sustaining his left oblique injury prior to intermission. “It’s a big blow,” Williams described of Okafor’s absence. “He’s the anchor of our defense. He’s playing the kind of basketball that he’s wanted to play his whole career, and then you have a setback like this. We certainly are going to miss him. But at the same time, we’ve dealt with stuff like this all year long. This is no different.”

For his part, Okafor sounded disappointed that his impressive streak of 306 consecutive games will come to an end Tuesday vs. Washington (13-34). One silver lining is that the timing could’ve been worse, because the upcoming All-Star break will provide a hiatus from basketball. “If an injury were to occur, this is the time for it to happen,” Okafor said. “We have about a week or so where we’re not playing (during the All-Star break). It’s less games I can miss.”

Okafor added: “It’s unfortunate. I feel horrible. But some things you can’t control. You take comfort knowing you did everything you could to prepare (to play and be healthy), but some things aren’t bulletproof. With these type of injuries, you might feel great, but then (you can) come out and re-pull it. There was no warning when this happened, and I didn’t have any hindrance or pain in that area. So when it happened it caught me off guard. If you come back too soon, you’ll find yourself back at Square 1. I just have to formulate a plan of attack, get proper rest and get back.”

Along with Williams and Okafor speaking to the New Orleans media, Jason Smith also addressed reporters during an eventful Tuesday shootaround. Here’s a roundup of some of the other noteworthy quotes from this morning:

On what impact the Okafor injury might have on free-agent signings or trades the Hornets might make to react to his absence:
“I don’t think it changes what we’re trying to do. Dell (Demps) has been working, even before this injury. It may amp it up a bit, but the reality is with all of the injuries that have happened this year, most of those (free agents who were without a team when the regular season began) have already been signed. There is not a lot out there. If there is someone out there, there’s a reason why he’s available. So it’s not like we want to bring them in and mess up what we have. I know Dell is working. We talked last night. We talked this morning. It can be stressful. We haven’t been in panic mode all year. We’re not going to start now. Guys have to step up. That’s what we’ve said all year.”

On Aaron Gray:
“He went through shootaround this morning and a little contact. He’s not 100 percent, but nobody is. This is the time where you have to give it up (for the betterment of the team). He could be back in the rotation maybe tonight.”

On potential lineup alterations:
“We could see some small lineups at times, to take advantage of what we don’t have (when Okafor can’t play). We may have to play a little faster, (use) zone (more frequently).”

On whether Hornets can prove themselves by winning games without one of the team’s best three players:
“Let’s give these guys some credit. They’ve been proving it all year. To beat Orlando, San Antonio and some of the things we’ve done, we should be able to rely on that for confidence that we can play the game a certain way. Obviously if we can hold the fort down with Emeka out, that should give us more confidence.”

On Emeka’s consecutive-games streak ending:
“To have a stretch like that, says a lot about his conditioning and mental focus. Being able to play at a high level and average a double-double during that stretch is pretty remarkable as well. The way Mek plays, it’s extraordinary, because he blocks shots, he plays very physical basketball and he’s just one of those guys who prides himself on playing every night.”

On impact of Okafor being out 1-3 weeks:
“Obviously it’s a big hit to our team. I think we have guys who can come in and step up. We have to, to keep continuing to play the way we are.”

On Smith’s approach to a potentially larger role:
“(Okafor’s) obviously been the anchor for our team and has done a great job. Going into it, you have to go in with the best mindset and hopefully get the job done like he did.”