The Hornets followed up two of their most overwhelming performances of the year, in front of their home crowd to boot, with perhaps their best overall game of the season, controlling both ends of the floor in a 102-81 beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks are an intriguing team, full of potential and young talent that could develop into special players down the road; whether those players will develop in Milwaukee is another story, but there's a lot to like on the Bucks roster.
Their big problem is a logjam in the frontcourt, with Ekpe Udoh, John Henson, Ersan Ilyasova (and his shiny new 5-year, $40 million contract which has looked pretty suspect with Ilyasova's play to this point), Samuel Dalembert (who got a DNP-Coach's Decision tonight), Joel Przybilla, and even Drew Gooden (easy to forget the journeyman and his massive contract are on this team) all competing for playing time.
Each player brings something different to the table (Sanders-blocks, defense, rebounding; Udoh-hustle, mid-range game; Henson-athleticism, high-ceiling) and Scott Skiles has been mixing and matching lineups all season trying to make a specific concoction work. Surprisingly the Bucks have played pretty well considering the team's lineup instability, especially when their backcourt combo of Ellis and Jennings plays superbly.
In this game Jennings gave Vasquez, Roberts or whomever else the Hornets put on him fits, scoring 25 points on 23 shots (not very efficient, but the Bucks lack of interior scoring forces Jennings and Ellis to jack more shots than even the two high-volume shooters would care to) and getting to the rim (and to his left, with Jennings being left-handed) with ease at certain points. Jennings' speed and his ability to get left when he wanted gave the Hornets fits for awhile.
The other Achilles Heel for the Hornets against Milwaukee (and a problem that has hurt them at other times this season) was allowing offensive rebounds. New Orleans gave up 19 offensive boards (out of the Bucks' 40 total rebounds) and thus gave Milwaukee way too many opportunities to score 2nd or 3rd chance points. Luckily the Bucks forwards weren't able to convert a lot of putbacks and are just generally offensively challenged, and on a night when Robin Lopez looked like his twin brother (on offense, minus the short hair) that's gonna come back to hurt you.
Speaking of Lopez, let's take a look at the bright points from the team's performance (and there were more of them then on most nights this season):
- Robin Lopez (21 points, 4 rebounds in 23+ minutes)- Lopez had a very solid offensive game tonight, taking advantage of an undersized Bucks frontline (Skiles started Udoh at center and DNP'd Dalembert, who would've definitely given Lopez more fits inside). At one point in the 3rd quarter Lopez scored 12 straight points for the Hornets, following up a ridiculous mid-air finger roll on a pick and roll to a pull-up 15-footer in the face of Larry Sanders. Think about that for a second. Then laugh out loud like I did in amazement. Lopez was feeling it tonight and played aggressively. But the 4 rebounds against a small team like Milwaukee still worries me and Lopez even tonight disappointed me with his inability to grab rebounds against the Luc Mbah a Moute's and Marquis Daniels of the world. Robin is not going to have offensive nights like this one all the time; if he doesn't improve his rebounding and defense I don't think it's a sure thing the Hornets pick up the 2 years on his contract (both non-guaranteed) in June.
- Ryan Anderson (22 points, 7 rebounds in 33 minutes)- What more can I say about Anderson aka "The Arsenal" that hasn't already been said? The guy is amazing. What really impressed me tonight about Ryan was his post game and his ability to score inside as well as out. We all know Anderson is a top-tier shooter in this league, but if he can master his inside game, using his 6'10" frame for positioning, he's shown he possesses the game to be an elite all-around offensive player. He had some really nice drives, putbacks, and even post moves in this game, and if you factor in how defenses will overcommit to him on the jumpshot/3-pointer, Ryno has the potential to continue to be a devastating weapon on offense for this team.
- Grevis Vasquez (11 points, 9 assists, 4 TO's in 27+ minutes)- Vasquez is and continues to be one of the most hit or miss players not just on this team, but in this entire league. At times he controls the game masterfully, executes the pick and roll/pop with ease and is good at knowing when to force the issue and attack offensively or pull in the reins and set up the offense. He reminds me of Andre Miller in that way; the thing is that sometimes Vasquez gets carried away and makes really bad decisions with the ball when he tries to force the issue. Having a reliable option next to him in the backcourt (ie Eric Gordon) would make Vasquez a much better player, but he is still an underrated guy in this league. Hopefully his growth continues this season.
- Everyone else- Jason Smith (12 points, 3 boards, 3 assists, 3 steals, and his usual all-out Jason Smith-ness), Lance Thomas (10 points) and Brian Roberts (10 points, 5 assists) all had really good games off the bench. Xavier Henry somehow got 20+ minutes (and a +18 plus/minus) despite looking awful the entire time on the court. How Monty hasn't given his minutes to Aminu/Miller is still beyond me. Smith didn't have a good shooting night (5-of-12) but his energy and all-around play is irreplaceable on this team, especially with Davis out. I still would prefer to see Miller (and even Aminu) get more of Lance's minutes but I understand why Monty likes him so much and chooses to play him at times; you have to credit Thomas for his energy and intensity on the court as well. Roberts is a little different because the Hornets have their 1st-round pick Austin Rivers sitting there on the bench at times while Roberts gets minutes. Again, I know that Roberts provides scoring and is more reliable offensively than the young/raw Rivers, but games like this one (that the Hornets had in hand for most of the 2nd half) are the best opportunities to give Rivers extended minutes and see what he can do with them. We already know what Roberts can provide with his ability to score (I still don't like how Roberts runs the offense; he likes to dribble around with his head down and misses open guys and opportunities on the pick and roll a lot), but I want to see Rivers game grow as much as possible. The rookie is way too unselfish IMO and I want to see him be more Roberts-like when he gets the ball and a good matchup.
And then there's Brandon Jennings, the restricted free agent point guard who is a tantalizing option for New Orleans and Dell Demps to open the pocketbooks to after this season. Pairing him with a healthy Gordon (combined with Vasquez and Rivers as your 4-man backcourt rotation going forward ain't too bad at all) would instantly vault this franchise up a level to possible contender, especially if Davis, Anderson and Rivers continue to develop. There's already this awesome picture of Jennings in a Hornets uni; I think he looks really good in teal and gold.
The good news for now is that the Hornets played a really solid 48 minutes as a team tonight, making the necessary 2nd half adjustments to slowdown Milwaukee and hold them to only 31 2nd half points. Even without Davis in the lineup the balance of the offense combined with Lopez having a big night showed the team is capable of playing above average offensive basketball for an entire game. And considering we welcome in the defensively-challenged Lakers to the Hive on Wednesday, I'm looking forward to another good game in the Big Easy.
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