Hornets 86, Bucks 81: Hornets Perfect Through Six

New Orleans looked sluggish from the opening tip, but their commitment to defense paid off yet again. 

Weeks 1 and 2 of the Hornets' 2010-2011 campaign are officially in the books. Thus far, we've seen good ball control, wild turnovers, good shooting, terrible shooting, strong and mediocre rebounding, and high and low energy. The underlying constant has been the defense, and it carried us to win #6.

Pace and Energy

Everyone but David West looked a step slow tonight. That was, of course, to be expected; most of our offense came in the half court, and the team didn't look to push in transition the way it did Friday night. After playing out a methodical first half, New Orleans deliberately slowed the pace to a crawl in the second half. 

And as the pace slowed down, the offense began to pick up. The Hornets posted 41 points on their 46 first half possessions (or 0.89 points/poss). In the second half, they tossed up 46 points on 41 possessions (or 1.21 points/poss). It seemed like Monty Williams understood that his team would be most effective if they slowed down on offense. After the Heat game, New Orleans likely couldn't have both locked down defensively and pushed into transition effectively.

The transition into a much slower offense (far slower than anything we'd seen this season) was made seamless by the high pick and roll (obviously a staple of Byron Scott's extremely slow teams). But it also, unfortunately, resulted in quite a few meandering, fruitless drive attempts by Trevor Ariza and Willie Green among others. The offense never stagnated over long stretches per se, but the overall result (a mere 87 points on 87 possessions) isn't something we'll want to replicate soon.

Defense

As (relatively) slow as the team looked on offense, it still maintained its crispness on defense. Rotations were timely, shooters were closed out, and help defense was available in the paint on every drive. The Hornets didn't force too many turnovers, but they did a tremendous job on field goal defense (41% eFG%). And once the Bucks missed, New Orleans made sure to grab the defensive rebounds. 

The box score will indicate that Bogut and Mbah a Moute did a good job on the offensive glass (5 and 4 OREBs respectively), but the Hornets' overall defensive rebound percentage was solid. The Bucks' 11 offensive rebounds were more a function of how many shots they ended up missing (51 to the Hornets' 38 missed). They simply had many more opportunities to grab rebounds off their own misses. 

Carlos Delfino and Corey Maggette combined to go 11-20 with 35 points in the season opener; tonight, they went 4-15 with 10 points. Andrew Bogut was once again superb, but I can't hold too much of that against Okafor. Bogut's simply one of the NBA's top centers, and he showed it again tonight.

David West

He was the game's MVP, no question. Offensively, he poured in a ridiculous 25 points on 12 shots (along with two offensive rebounds). He scored basically whenever he wanted to, came up with the big shots down the stretch, and handed out 4 assists too. He out-muscled defenders when presented with weaker match-ups, but he usually finished off all defenders with the short fall away.

John Hollinger mentioned in his season preview that "David West has been down this road for a half-decade and likely will likely continue down the same road for another half-decade." It's a reference to West's ability to rely, offensively, on basketball smarts over athleticism.

Tonight was a perfect example. West is a strong player, but he relies on his natural feel for a defender's positioning more than anything else. He leans against defenders and plays off of them in order to find the perfect time to release his shot. That's why he can get so little elevation on his jumper and still almost never have his shot blocked. His sense of when an opponent will leave his feet is just perfect.

Next time you see David West back down a defender, watch for how many "mini" jumps a defender will take in the lead up to West's shot. Everyone knows it's coming, but the timing and the footwork in the buildup are what make it effective.  

But forget offense for a second. What I really want to talk about is David West's defense against the Bucks. As a few people pointed in the game thread, DX seemed to be the vocal leader of the defense tonight. He was continually barking at teammates to ensure positioning. Tonight's the first game I can remember hearing West's voice on the defensive end as often as the "And one!" end. West's help defense in the paint was outstanding (he also finished with 2 blocked shots). 

David West was the man on both ends of the floor.

The Bench

Some trends are beginning to emerge for the second unit. Five of the more important ones:

(1) Jason Smith can shoot the midrange jumper. He'll also hustle for every ball.
(2) Jerryd Bayless is trying to make an assist on every play. As a result, he's making a turnover on (almost) every play.
(3) Willie Green is fine on defense, but he shoots way, way too often.
(4) D.J. Mbenga is not the answer at center.
(5) Marcus Thornton is good. He also doesn't get enough minutes. As a result, he seems to want to "prove" himself in his limited minutes, taking off balance shots he may not normally take.

What do we make of these five things? The first one is obviously good. Jason Smith may never be an adequate rebounder for a power forward, but he's starting to show that it might not really matter. He fights hard on defense, his screen-setting has become more forceful and consistently stable (as opposed to moving) by the game, and he's got the midrange game on lock down. He's the answer at the 4.

The second is obviously bad. Bayless is a natural scorer. It's unclear if Monty Williams is reluctant to give him the green light to be a natural scorer or if Bayless has taken it upon himself to be a passer. Either way, this needs to be sorted out soon. Willie Green brought the ball up during the second half (with Bayless playing off the ball). That's fine, but as Bayless showed last year, he does have potential on the ball. Right now, however, he's costing us points and possessions every time he goes out.

The third is bad but can be solved by the fifth. With a Thornton-Green lineup, let Green take the tougher defensive assignment, let Thornton be more offensively involved. It's obviously not that simple, but as long as Green takes 9 shots to Thornton's 1, the bench will continue to make me shudder. 

And finally, the answer to the fourth is sitting on the inactives list. 

The bench has its pros and its cons. The cons, to an extent, can be addressed by in-house remedies. Monty Williams has proven to be extremely adroit at reading situations and adapting. We'll see how he handles the bench over the next couple weeks. 

Chris Paul

It was, to be sure, an off game for him. But that last shot? Beautiful.

Watch a replay of it when you get a chance. CP comes off the pick and is faced with two Buck defenders. What he does next- that subtle flick of his shoulders- is what makes the play. Luc Richard freezes, Andrew Bogut freezes, and while everybody's busy freezing, Chris Paul is still going. A second later, the ball is in the net, Luc Richard is on the ground, and the Hornets are on their way.

He's covered, and then less than a nanosecond later, he isn't. That, in the world's tiniest nutshell, is Chris Paul. 

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