It was, at times, infuriating, but the first win of the Monty Williams era was satisfying nonetheless.
Let's start with the guy that, for all our summer moves, will define our season. The last time we saw Chris Paul play a regular season game, he went 2 for 11, posting 6 assists over 37 minutes. Many wondered if he'd ever be the same player again. Five months later, Paul showed during preseason that he'd regained his former mobility. Tonight: 17 points on 11 shots, 16 assists, 1 turnover. He looked like he's been playing with Trevor Ariza and Marco Belinelli for years. Brandon Jennings played a terrific, under-control passing game but didn't come close to matching Paul's overall efficiency.
Paul's favorite target, David West, was on the brink of a monster night. He couldn't miss a jumper, finishing 8 for 10 from outside the paint. But continuous foul trouble limited him to just 27 minutes. West's foul trouble was really the difference between a close game down the stretch and a double digit win. Jason Smith was used in the normal West role, shooting from the perimeter, but finished just 1 for 7 on jumpers. West certainly would have converted a couple more of those looks, but Milwaukee did a good job attacking him offensively to keep him on the bench.
Smith did play quality defense down the stretch though. Monty Williams' decision to sit West for Smith on defense in the final minute deserves a lot of credit; how many rookie head coaches pull an All-Star power forward for- let's face it- a scrub-type player, even if there's a clear defensive disparity (and foul trouble)? Well played. Smith didn't rebound nearly the way he did during the preseason though. He was bodied out consistently and finished with just 4 boards in 24 minutes. In unrelated news, Louis Amundson ate some almonds (son).
Marco Belinelli's Offense
Wow. As positive as Belinelli's preseason was, tonight was something else. Basically every time he touched the ball in the first half, he charged immediately towards the hoop. He played in control, he found open teammates with ease, he pulled off a crowd pleasing behind the back dribble/steal combination, and he was terrific off the ball. Oh, he also helped out in the rebound game, pulling down 6 himself and assisting teammates to other loose balls.
His final line was 6 for 15 from the field; every one of those misses came within the rhythm of the offense. One game into the season, I'll go on record and say Julian Wright for Marco Belinelli was a stroke of genius by Dell Demps.
Trevor Ariza's Defense
Make no mistake, Ariza struggled offensively today. When he rose up for an isolation 20 footer with 10 seconds left on the shot clock in the first quarter, I recoiled in horror. None of his five (wide open) misses from three were particularly close. He missed an open layup down the stretch. And yet, he still played a major role in the win. Two of his four steals came as strips underneath the hoop. I couldn't tell in real time if his final steal was actually a steal or a foul. But John Salmons, his primary matchup on the night, finished 2 for 8 with 4 turnovers.
Monty Williams' System
It'll take a few games before particular trends begin to emerge. I'll go with the three things that especially stood out tonight.
(1) Freeing David West outside 15 feet
Byron Scott's and Jeff Bower's offenses usually accomplished this on the high screen that's come to define New Orleans Hornets basketball in recent years. Tonight was a little bit different in terms of how West was freed for his jumper. There were quite a few high picks, but West also worked off the ball and off of Paul's defender to get open.
David West and Chris Paul working together isn't so much a "play" as it is the pair feeling each other out. But Williams made sure West got plenty of looks even outside of that dynamic.
(2) The Weakside Swing
Switching the ball from the strong side (side with the ball) to the weak wing to the corner three is one of the staples of San Antonio Spurs basketball under Gregg Popovich. We saw it happen a number of times tonight with generally quality execution. On most occasions, the ball handler would penetrate into the paint down the middle before making the pass to the weak wing.
By my count, the Hornets took eight corner threes (which Popovich is famous for) tonight. Almost every single one of them came with no defender in the vicinity. The Hornets missed all eight attempts (five of the eight were taken by Trevor Ariza and Willie Green). I hope the Hornets continue to go to this, though, placing Belinelli and Stojakovic in the corners instead.
(3) Wild Guard Rotations
We knew that Thornton, Belinelli, Green, and Bayless wouldn't necessarily have defined roles. I didn't expect the blur we saw tonight though. At one point in the first half, New Orleans ran out a unit of Bayless-Thornton-Green-Ariza-Smith. In the second half, we saw a Paul-Thornton-Green look. Both units were surprisingly effective on both offense and defense.
As disheartening as it was to see Willie Green come in ahead of Marcus Thornton, if MT plays well, he'll surely get some run in this blurred wing system. Thornton finished with 8 points on 6 shots in 11 minutes tonight, including a very solid defensive effort.
Aaron Gray and DJ Mbenga
D.J. Mbenga cannot be the primary backup at center if this team is going to go anywhere. He's a fine guy to have on the third string, but not beyond that. Tonight, he came in, failed to put in an easy layup, missed another layup point blank, gave away a cheap three point play, and committed a bad foul to send a Buck to the line. All of that happened in 6:45; Monty Williams went to Jason Smith at center (and Pops at PF) in the second half. That's absolutely not going to work from a rebounding perspective.
Leaving a career 14/21/17 rebounder inactive is never a wise move, especially since Aaron Gray has clearly worked himself into playing shape over the offseason. Before anybody says we need to sign a better post option, let's remember there's a very decent one sitting on our inactives list.
Some bullets to close:
- Anyone else see John Hollinger's hilariously ignorant potshot at Chris Paul this morning? The exact quote: "Scouts tell me that Chris Paul looks out of shape, which is a huge red flag for the Hornets; I picked them to win 45 games based largely on Paul's brilliance, but if he can't play at an MVP level they're going to land miles short of that mark." Unbelievable. Can't wait to see what scout-derived analysis he has for us tomorrow morning.
- Andrew Bogut is really, really good. He's very strong, understands defensive and rebounding position very well, and he has ridiculous touch near the hoop. The fact that a guy like Andrew Bynum gets ten times the publicity Bogut does is criminal.
- Ever since his brilliant nickname was coined, I can't stop laughing every time Corey Maggette touches the basketball.
- Emeka Okafor played just 25 minutes and committed some questionable fouls. I'll still defend him for his really good rebound rate and the overall high cost of post players, but hopefully he can return to his Charlotte numbers this season.
- I don't know why I didn't realize this until now: Joe Alexander's presence on the roster means his contract is now guaranteed and counts against our cap. Sure, it's the minimum, but it means that even if we wanted to sign another free agent, we'd essentially be paying double price for him.
- New Orleans had 50 possessions in the first half, but slowed down to just 41 in the second half (20 in the third quarter, 21 in the fourth).