The picture pretty accurately summarizes the game. On an emotional night following the loss of David West, the Hornets battled back from a double digit deficit to pick up an absolutely critical road victory at Phoenix. Chris Paul punctuated periods of relative passivity with multiple stretches of brilliance, none more impressive than his final two minutes, when he slammed the door on Steve Nash, the Suns, and potentially their flickering playoff hopes. And in doing so, he reminded us that a team with Chris Paul on it can never be written off.
Some quick bullets up front:
- Trevor Ariza and Willie Green started their respective nights slowly, but both finished with respectable lines. I thought Green's defense was below where it's normally been at this year, but he contributed 15 points on 10 shots. Meanwhile, Ariza stuck 2 of his 5 threes, on his way to 16 on 13 shots.
- Carl Landry appeared to force the issue a bit too much as the game began. The Hornets drew up many plays to involve him early, but he settled for many West style jumpers in the first quarter. As the game wore on, he began to go to his signature moves- especially the short turnaround fadeaway- and he finished the night strong. Unfortunately, his rebounding line (2 defensive boards in 31 minutes) was pretty poor.
- We don't win this game without Jarrett Jack. 17 points, 5 assists, 7 of 11 shooting, 2 steals, 0 turnovers.
- As has been the case all year, when Marco Belinelli struggled in the first half, Monty Williams refused to give him much run in the second. It's a strategy I personally disagree with; Belinelli is an elite shooter that should get his "regular" minutes, regardless of whether his last couple shots went in or not. While the decision to go Jack over Marco worked out well, it still vaguely underlines the inconsistency of Monty's rotations this year. His defensive coaching has been stellar, and his offensive coaching is starting to come together; hopefully consistency in rotations is next on the agenda.
- In general, the Hornets played poor defense on the night, giving up 100 points on 89 possessions. Fortunately, great fourth quarter defense (22 points on 22 possessions) and great offense overall (1.19 offensive rating) helped them pull out the victory.
Anyways, back to Chris Paul.
With 2:41, Steve Nash missed a dagger three pointer that would have put the Suns up four. At 95-96, New Orleans came back up the floor on offense. Here's how their next 5 possessions unfolded:
2:19 - Jarrett Jack makes three (Chris Paul assists)
1:35 - Chris Paul makes 5 foot jumper
0:54 - Chris Paul makes 21 foot jumper
0:25 - Emeka Okafor makes layup (Chris Paul dribbles multiple circles around a triple team, leading to Willie Green airball)
0:11 - Willie Green makes layup (Chris Paul assists)
There will be some that say the Hornets' season effectively ended when David West's left foot touched the hardwood in Salt Lake City. In a sense, I don't disagree. I had significant hopes for this team in the playoffs. The offense was, at long last, coming together spectacularly; we had already seen the team play terrific defense all year long. In my opinion, with the new offensive system, a healthy Hornets team stood a reasonable shot of knocking out every team in the West save the Lakers. Then the Utah game happened. Carl Landry is a great player, but he's not David West. My expectations for the rest of the year went from "reservedly optimistic" to "none whatsoever" when the West news came out today.
At the same time, a lack of expectations does not imply the season is over. Far from it. David West is one of the great players in Hornets franchise history; like Dell Demps said yesterday, his jersey will hopefully one day hang from the rafters. But a Chris Paul comes around once a generation. For all the links between Chris Paul and New York or Los Angeles or Barcelona or wherever, he currently plays for the New Orleans Hornets. Anyone that doubts his commitment to this team need look no further than his final play in regulation in Utah- where, on an almost entirely meaningless/desperation play, he jumped over Al Jefferson for a loose ball and proceeded to crash five feet to the ground directly on his hip- or his post-game interview in Phoenix where he was literally moved to the verge of tears after a question about David West and his teammates.
If you look at it logically, statistically, analytically, yes, the most likely outcome for the 2010-2011 Hornets is either a trip to the lottery or a first round loss. But that's the thing with sports- the outcomes are binary, but winning and losing don't exclusively determine fan experience. 29 teams fail to win the NBA Finals every single year, but that doesn't mean that those 29 fanbases don't have experiences worth remembering. Forget the playoffs, forget the matchups. For the next two weeks, we get to watch a future Hall of Famer try and will his team into the post-season against a tough, tough schedule. Chris Paul still plays for New Orleans, and if tonight was any indication, that still means a damn lot.