The New Orleans Hornets won their first three games of the season before dropping five of their next seven. But thanks to a three game stretch that included back-to-back games against the cellar dwelling Oklahoma City Thunder, the Hornets entered Thursday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets riding a three game win streak.
The Hornets were picked by many to contend for the NBA championship this season. New Orleans won 56 games last year behind Chris Paul’s MVP-caliber year, a disciplined defense, and lights-out shooting. This season, the Hornets have been plagued by a lack of bench production, poor defensive effort, and slow starts. Trailing 12-4 three minutes into the game, and without starters Tyson Chandler (family) and Mo Peterson (sore knee), the Hornets appeared to be in for a long night.
Rasual Butler stepped up to the plate with 8 points on 3-of-3 shooting, including 2-of-2 from the three-point line to help the Hornets to a 28-10 run to close the first quarter. But with Chris Paul on the bench to begin the second period, the Nuggets went on a 10-2 run tie the score at 34-34 with 8:12 remaining the second quarter. With Paul back in the game at the 7:51 mark, the Hornets closed the quarter on an 18-12 run to take a 52-46 lead heading into the break.
Paul finished the first half with just 2 points on 1-of-2 shooting, and handed out 4 assists. David West led the Hornets in scoring with 11 points on 4-of-10 from the field. JR Smith paced the Nuggets with 14 points on 6-of-10 from the field, and 2-of-4 from the three-point line.
Told that he needed to be “more aggressive” at halftime by Coach Byron Scott, Paul scored 7 points in the third quarter and handed out 4 more assists to extend New Orleans’ lead to 7 to start the fourth quarter. But with Paul on the bench again to begin the fourth, the Nuggets reeled off an 11-2 run to take an 80-78 lead with 8:42 remaining before Coach Scott was forced to burn a timeout and bring his superstar point guard back into the game.
The Nuggets and Hornets went back-and-forth until Paul found James Posey on the wing for a dagger 3-ball with 19.1 seconds remaining that put the Hornets up for good. Smith responded with a three-pointer out of a timeout, but it was too little too late as the Hornets escaped with a 105-101 win over the Nuggets.
Smith led all scorers with 32 points on 13-of-21 from the field and 5-of-9 from the three-point line.
Paul finished the game with 22 points, including 13 in the final period, and handed out 10 assists. After the game, Paul shrugged off his slow start by explaining that he was simply “letting the game come to him.” All’s well that ends well, but the Hornets offense was a trainwreck when Paul rested to begin the second and fourth quarters. New Orleans was outscored 21-4 over that 7:27 stretch. [Read]