The first round is upon us at last. Since Hornets fans are lucky to have such a wealth of writers/bloggers/analysts, I thought it'd be a good idea to get everyone's take on a few critical questions. Ticktock6 (Hornets Hype), mW (Hornets Hype), Jim Eichenhofer (Hornets.com), and David Schexnaydre (New Orleans Times Picayune) provide the following insight.
What is the most dangerous obstacle facing New Orleans in the first round (could be a fast pace, a specific player, etc.)?
ticktock6: Themselves. It always has been, all year. This is their last chance to be the dominant team we've seen glimpses of. A season of inconsistency won't matter if they can somehow put it together for one series and finally get rolling.
mW: J.R. Smith. The man is a wild card. He can either jack up horribly stupid shots or drop 10 treys on you. Unfortunately, against Nola, he carries that chip on his shoulder from being shipped out and has shot 53% from the field against us this year, 42% from three-point range, and is averaging over 21 points a game. Rasual really needs to lock down on him, even if it pulls him out of his own offensive game.
Jim: Chauncey Billups' potential ability to transform the Nuggets into a formidable playoff team for the first time is a legitimate concern. Denver has had virtually no success in previous postseasons, but it has never had a point guard like "Mr. Big Shot." I expect Billups to make the Nuggets' offense much better in crunch time and elevate the play of his teammates. Kenyon Martin has been ineffective during the recent first-round exits, while Carmelo Anthony has made relatively little impact. If Billups can get his starting forwards to perform closer to their regular season form, it will require a tremendous effort by the Hornets to win the series.
David: The obvious answer is to say health, or lack thereof, but I'll go with another cliche' instead: the bench. As if it isn't enough that the Hornets' bench has struggled to score points this season, Denver's bench is extremely good defensively. While Denver's bench has had its struggles, they are also capable of filling it up in a hurry on the offensive end. In short, the potential is there for Denver's bench to simply blow out the Hornets' bench, especially during that second quarter stretch where it's a New Orleans ritual to let your opponent do whatever they want.
Let's say the home team wins the first 6 games. Do you think this Hornets team is capable of winning a Game 7 this time around, and if so, what's changed since last year?
ticktock6: I go back and forth on this. I want to say yes. Because losing like that is something you don't forget. But... this team has shown a lack of execution in every game against a team they needed to beat for seeding (ie: could have moved up a spot if they won) reasons in the last month. I want to see our Laker-beating-on-the-road January team back.
mW: Absolutely. It is the team's unfortunate motto this year. Just get to the playoffs and anything can happen. Well, Game 7 is the ultimate "anything can happen" game. And yes, I do think their experience from last year changed things. They do not want to be that team or to feel the pain that comes along with it, so they will use that pain to push them in a Game 7. Especially because they know what it feels like to lose on their home floor for that game, and they want to be on the giving end of that.
Jim: I think the Hornets understand the mental aspect of the playoffs much better after the experience of 2008, including the Game 7 loss. Several players have mentioned that the biggest thing they learned from the Spurs was how important it can be to stay composed and not get rattled if things don't go your way early in a series. San Antonio never wavered last year after being down 2-0 or 3-2 in that series, an emotional maturity that impressed Hornets players. Hopefully the Hornets won't have to face a similar deficit in this series, but I think in general they seem better equipped to deal with the ups and downs of the playoffs now than they were last spring.
David: I'd love to say I do, but honestly, I don't. I think the Hornets have to win Game 1 or Game 2 to really have a shot in this series. I feel like it's extremely tough to win a Game 7 on someone else's court (please spare me comments about last year's Hornets-Spurs series, because this year's Hornets can't compare to last year's Spurs) and if this series goes 7 games I think CP and West would be so exhausted that they wouldn't have anything left in the tank to steal a Game 7 on someone else's floor. As much as I want the Hornets to advance, I see no recent evidence from this team to suggest that they're capable of winning a Game 7 in Denver.
Peja played Denver well in four games this season and could be an X-factor. Is there any reason you guys saw for that during the season (I was always too busy looking up why Tyson had missed yet another Nuggets game), and who do you think has a more productive series- him or J.R. Smith?
ticktock6: I didn't know about it until we looked up his stats for something else I was writing. He shot 50% from three against Denver. So I guess I didn't notice either. They decided to shut down the middle and just let him shoot? Which doesn't make sense because we didn't have Tyson, therefore less of an inside threat to have to worry about in those games. I dearly hope Peja finds his aggressiveness again and Byron Scott isn't too prideful to come up with a plan for covering J.R.
mW: If I had to put money on it, I'd say J.R. It hurts to say. But the fact that Peja has played so well against Denver had a lot to do with the injuries we had and Byron calling a lot of set plays for him. I'm not sure we'll see that in this series. That said, I'd really like to see some of that. If they can force Melo to run around the court with Peja, to track him through screens and such, rather than just allow him to stand on the perimeter with Peja, it might take that much more energy out of Melo and slow him on the offensive end of the floor.
Jim: My theory on Peja’s success is that Denver was one of the most aggressive opponents in terms of forcing the ball out of Chris Paul's hands. The downside of that strategy is it means more open shots for other players, including Peja. I heard a few local media members float the idea this week that the Nuggets did a better job than anyone of late of defending CP and the Hornets, after they held New Orleans to 88 points on March 25. But Peja didn't play in that game, so the scrambling strategy was less risky. If he's on the floor and is left open often as a result of double-teams on Paul, the Hornets hope Peja will make Denver pay by draining three-pointers. As far as who will be more effective between Peja and J.R., I’m not sure because it's mostly based on who is hitting their shots, but certainly J.R. had the better regular season.
David: As far as his success against Denver, I really don't have an answer. He shot the ball a little more against the Nuggets than he did on an average night, but I have no reason that he hit 56% of his shots against Denver and 39% against everyone else. As far as who has a more productive series, I have to go with J.R. at this point simply because I know J.R. is going to get his shots. With Peja, the biggest question is almost not will he get going, but rather, will he even get a chance to get going. In January Peja averaged 12.4 shots per game and in February he averaged 13.4. However, after returning from his injury he averaged only 8.5 shots in March and 9.6 in April. Peja can create his own shot sometimes, but really, he needs the team to make a concerted effort to get him involved and get him going. I don't feel like they've done that as of late.
Are any of you concerned with the Hornets from a mental perspective right now? Paul looked on the verge of tears after the Spurs loss, and this team has endured a really painful final month. Do you think the psychological beating the team took will have any bearing in this series?
ticktock6: If they come out well, I think they'll pick themselves up fast. If they drop a bad first game, I'm not confident they can recover. I'm not saying there's no fight in them-- I think there is. But I do think the psychological beating will kick back in. I know I'm not usually this negative, but we all kept saying it was this switch they were going to switch on, and it never happened. I saw the look on Chris Paul's face too, and am not sure I've ever seen him that upset. I kind of wanted Jordy to get out of his face.
mW: No chance. To the contrary, I think they've learned to use that pain and rage in their favor. David and CP do not want to lose and they are going to drag this team to victory, even if they have to reach into their teammates' souls and tug through the ether to do so.
Jim: It's always tough to forecast if there will be any carryover from the way the team finished the regular season (2-6 in last eight games). But I think this is where Tyson Chandler's return may be huge from a psychological standpoint. The players know that they haven't had a complete team lately. By Tyson returning - even if it's not at 100 percent - there appears to be so much more potential to do damage in the playoffs. I also believe having so much time off between games can only help the players see the playoffs as a fresh start for everyone.
David: With probably 25 other teams in the NBA I would say yes, they're affected. However, I feel like Byron does a good job of keeping the team focused and I feel that they are really focused on winning. I think Paul, West, and everybody else are smart enough to know that this is what everything is all about. Those final few games in the regular season mean nothing, this is what is important. I also think having Tyson back out there (even though he's probably only about 60%) is a big lift to them. This team has endured quite a tumultous few months, but they've weathered the storm and hopefully they're better because of it.
What's your ideal back-up big man rotation? Who's the first big in, who gets the most minutes, and is it worth trying work Hilton back into the swing of things?
ticktock6: Give Hilton a chance in the first game. You can always switch back. The fact is he played well (for him) against Denver this year. If Hilton plays badly, I'd say use Marks, then Ely. Though I think Marks works better with CP than with the backups. If their bigs get in foul trouble, we should swing to that small lineup with Posey that was effective against Dirk and the Mavs.
mW: Tyson and West starting, obviously. Tyson comes out first, and Marks goes in. Depending upon size of the Nuggets players, you might be able to use Posey to cover at the 4 when West goes out (or even Julian, who yes, should be in the rotation), but if the Nuggets are staying big, swing Marks to the 4 when West goes out and bring back Tyson for a few minutes. HIlton and Ely don't get off the bench. Incidentally, I put Bowen and Brown in street clothes, and inactivate Ely for the Playoff roster. Should anything happen to Tyson, be it injury or foul trouble, Hilton is our next best starter, but that said, Marks is the better guy off the bench. I don't know why, but Hilton just doesn't perform nearly as well as a bench player than as when he starts or gets thrust into that role (i.e., if he has to play most of the 2nd because of Tyson's foul problems).
Jim: Obviously the big-man rotation depends greatly on how many minutes Chandler will be able to play. As long as Chandler is as mobile as he looked in San Antonio the other night, the only reserve who will have a definitive role may be Sean Marks, for say 10 to 12 minutes. In terms of Hilton – as well as Melvin Ely – I would guess that they will get their chance to contribute at some point as well. Byron Scott and Chandler have been very candid in saying that Chandler's ankle condition will likely only get worse as the playoffs progress, so if he gets to the point where he can't go anymore or can't play starter minutes, the Hornets will probably need to use every big guy on the roster.
David: My ideal back-up big man rotation consists of several players on different rosters. However, since that's against the rules, I guess I'd say I'd probably prefer to see Tyson go as much as he can with Marks taking the rest of the available minutes. Depending on the matchup I'd give Posey some time at the 4 and I'd really try to avoid playing Ely and Hilton. If I had to choose one of them, I'd probably go with Hilton and tell him to focus on nothing but trying to get every rebound. And if he actually gets one, call timeout or something.
There are a lot of crazy good offensive players between these two. CP3, Melo, West, Billups, Peja, J.R., and Nene can each go off at any time. Who will be the most important defender on either team, i.e., which single player's defense will be most crucial to his team's success?
ticktock6: For Denver I'm gonna go with Kenyon Martin, because he's going to annoy the crap out of David West and how D-West reacts will be huge. For the Hornets, James Posey. He was pretty scrappy defensively this week. Maybe the giant elbow brace gives him powers.
mW: No matter who guards CP, the only thing that matters is how under control he is when they incessantly foul him, so that's not really an important "match-up." So I would have to say Peja on Melo. Clearly, Posey will spell him at times, and depending on his success (and Peja's shooting), might force Byron to go small with West at the 5, so he can play both Posey and Peja (but if Butler is cold, he might sit and Peja stay in while keeping his other starters on the floor). But that said, Peja will get significant minutes, and will probably be on Melo most of that time. So how we do during those stretches will be crucial, and probably a strong indicator of who wins each game.
Jim: Individually, James Posey and Rasual Butler won't get any breathers on defense against some of Denver's explosive scorers, so they are critical. Also, since the Nuggets are more athletic virtually across the board than the Hornets, I think help defense and communication could be make-or-break from a New Orleans perspective. This is another area where the coaches always credit Chandler with making a big difference, as a vocal "conductor" of the defense from his vantage point in the paint.
David: I think Kenyon Martin is probably the biggest defense piece to this puzzle of a series. West has struggled against him and Martin has a rare combination of athleticism and length that West isn't used to seeing. Martin will force West to be more creative on the offensive end and attack in a variety of ways. If Martin can throw West off of his game enough, that in itself may be enough for Denver to win the series. West and Paul have essentially carried the Hornets this point and the Hornets need epic series out of both of them in order to advance.
... and prediction time. Who ya got and how many games?
ticktock6: If the Hornets win, I think it will be in 6, not 7. They'll win at home. If they come to play in this series, if they have "it", I think we'll know very early in the series.
mW: Hornets in six. We steal one from Denver in the first two, sweep home, lose, and then clinch at home. CP gets at least one triple double, and Posey proves his worth.
Jim: I think it's going to be one of the most entertaining series of the first round, with so many young stars on both sides (I also like Blazers-Rockets and Hawks-Heat for the same reason). Most people seem to be expecting a long series. Hornets in 6 or 7.
David: I've gone back and forth and forth and back and everything inbetween when picking this series. Part of me knows what I've seen out of this Hornets team the past few weeks and doesn't think they can do it. The other part of me knows what I've seen out of this Hornets team over the course of the past two seasons and thinks they have a great shot. That said, I'm going with the Hornets. I think they lose Game 1 and then grab fate by the throat and win Game 2. They'll come back home and take Game 3 and Game 4, then drop Game 5 in Denver. That will set up a Game 6 on a Friday night in New Orleans where the crowd and energy push the Hornets over the top and back into Round 2 for the second consecutive year. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
I'd like to thank all the participants again for their time and answers. Terrific stuff all around. I personally got a lot out of reading each of the responses, and I hope you did too. Go Hornets!!!!