West powers learning a lesson the hard way -- don't mess with Hornets
NEW ORLEANS -- The Rockets won 22 in a row. The Spurs are the defending champs. The Lakers trade for Pau Gasol and are still seen as the West's most talented team. Those three have been the most talked-about teams in the West for the past month, and not without reason.
However, each now has something else in common: In the past week, they all lost to the Hornets.
Much of the focus this season has been on the three teams above, as well as the Mavericks' and Suns' new superstar acquisitions. But one can't help noticing that it says "New Orleans" at the top of the Western Conference standings after the Hornets' 90-69 win over Houston on Wednesday pulled them into a tie with L.A. for the West's best record.
And for this one, perhaps they can thank Rafer Alston. Houston's point guard made some comments about New Orleans forward David West during TNT's broadcast of the Rockets-Celtics game on Tuesday night while defending the perception that his team had been feasting on injured opponents. Let's just say the Hornets noticed.
Yo, Rafe -- might want to check the upcoming schedule before you go there. Alston's comments came less than 24 hours before the Rockets were due to visit New Orleans, and provided any additional motivation the Hornets might have needed.
West suited up for the Hornets this time -- his first game back from an ankle sprain -- and had 23 points and 11 boards to help lead the way to victory.
"He really was looking forward to this game," said Hornets coach Byron Scott. "No matter what Rafer Alston thinks, I think David proved his point as well."
Chris Paul, who again was calmly magnificent with 21 points, 10 assists and five steals, had even more to say on that front.
"Tracy McGrady is a great player. If I was Rafer Alston, I'd probably ride his coattails too."
"I feel like you can make a statement with the way you play. But some guys like Rafer Alston like to run their mouth that just added fuel to our fire tonight. D-West, that's my guy. For him to say he's not a star, I mean let's see what All-Star Game [Alston]'s played in."
"He had a tough time out there trying to stay in front of me, and that was the plan."
Please, Hammer, don't
"When you got somebody like Rafer Alston, who thinks they're a lot better than they really are, you gotta test them."
Alston vs. Paul may have provided the most salacious material, but in basketball terms, the more illustrative part of the evening was on the fourth-quarter scoreboard:
The Hornets' recently acquired swingman knows only five of the team's plays, according to Scott. But Scott called them over and over as he destroyed Houston with a series of post-ups and the occasional jumper -- even throwing in a rare 3 at the end to cap off his evening.
"I don't know the plays," Wells said. "I just know CP. That's it. You get him the ball and let him direct traffic."
Additionally, the Hornets got another huge effort off the pine from Julian Wright, the rookie from Kansas who has emerged as a force since the trade deadline. He defended McGrady for much of the second half and held him to just two points on 1-of-7 shooting after the break; the Rockets as a team mustered only 25 points in the half.
"I think he did a heck of a job guarding Tracy," Scott said. "That's one thing we saw on tape from last game [against Houston], was he had the athleticism to stick with him."
"I just tried to use my length to my advantage," said the 6-foot-8 Wright, "and make him [shoot] over me contested."
Though this final stat line was ho-hum, Wright threw in two high-impact offensive plays: He made a saving drive on a broken play that began when he retrieved a ball on the Houston side of midcourt -- a bucket that began the Hornets' rally from 14 down in the second quarter. And his spectacular no-look touch pass in transition to Wells for a dunk and foul gave the Hornets the lead to start the fourth quarter, kicking off a 17-4 game-clinching run.
Between Wells, Wright, Jannero Pargo and the return of Chris Andersen -- who Scott said still is working his way into the mix after a two-year suspension -- the story for the Hornets right now is that the cavalry has come to the rescue.
After seeing a strong starting five be undermined by the bench for much of the season, the second unit has become a plus -- taking a lot of the pressure off the starters, especially Paul and West. And that, in turn, is why the Hornets have at least a puncher's chance of overcoming a brutal late schedule to claim the top seed in the West.
Meanwhile, Houston showed an inability to score consistently for the fourth time in five games -- a string that coincides with the loss of rookie power forward Carl Landry. Landry's explosive efforts off the pine had made up for the absence of Yao during the middle portion of Houston's 22-game win streak, but with him gone, too, the cracks are beginning to show.
Houston has scored 74 and 69 points the past two games, as defenses have free reign to blitz McGrady because Houston almost always has multiple nonscorers on the court -- most notably with the second-quarter frontcourt of Mike Harris, Chuck Hayes and Dikembe Mutombo.
"We have to find a way to get easier baskets," said Rockets coach Rick Adelman. "They are doubling [McGrady] so hard, they're coming at him all the time. If he gives it up, we have to be able to finish it."
Granted, both games were against elite defensive teams, and it was a back-to-back and the Rockets were probably due for a dud or two after going undefeated for nearly two months. But they also struggled to score against Atlanta and Charlotte, and only a career game from Alston prevented a similar outcome against L.A.
In a helter-skelter Western Conference race where even brief losing streaks can send a team from first to sixth, the rough offensive outings are becoming worrisome. And with tough road tests coming in Golden State and Phoenix, the Hornets can't afford continued sluggishness at that end. The hope is that Landry can come back for those games, but he's been day-to-day with a sore knee for a week now.
Nonetheless, this was the Hornets' night and provided great news on another front. This was their seventh sellout in the past 12 games. Saturday's game against Boston is already full as well, making it eight of 13.
That's borderline miraculous for a place that was emptier than Paris Hilton's brain for much of the first half of the season, and makes it seem increasingly likely the team will meet the attendance targets in its revised lease with the city.
As a result, it now seems that the Hornets' surprise season will have an equally surprising secondary effect: saving basketball in New Orleans.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider.
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