First off make sure you carve out some time to take part in a live chat here at RMC featuring Niall Doherty and Ryan Schwan from the exceptional blog Hornets 24/7 tonight (Thursday) at 7:00 PM Mountain. You can ask questions or just read along. You choose your own level of involvement just like Project Mayhem in Fight Club.
I am not sure any of us should be excited about the fact the Nuggets drew the New Orleans Hornets in the first round. While it is true the Hornets have been struggling down the stretch run they are a very dangerous team. The only major difference between this season and last was health. During the 2007-08 season during which the Hornets won 56 games to earn the second seed in the west, Peja Stojakovic played 77 games and Tyson Chandler played in 79. This season Peja appeared in only 61 games largely due to a balky back and Chandler was on the floor for only 45 contests thanks to a bum ankle.
Tyson Chandler is back having played in the season finale last night in San Antonio and in his 45 appearances this season the Hornets are 30-15 on the season, a 55 win pace, compared to 19-14 without him. We all know how deadly Chris Paul can be running the pick and roll and he is only that much better with Chandler flying down the lane towards the rim. Defensively Chandler has never blocked more than 1.8 shots a game in his career, but he is a great rebounder and also adds a presence in the lane that the Hornets lack otherwise.
Peja’s health issues has had a major impact on the Hornets’ three point shooting. Last season New Orleans was in a statistical dead heat for the league lead in three point shooting percentage by hitting 38.9% from behind the arc. This season they are a very mediocre 36.4%. If you look at their individual shooting percentages they are all very similar to last season except for one. Peja dropped from 44.1% last season to a still respectable, but un-Peja like 37.8% this season. He has seemingly recovered, but he has only made one of his previous ten three point attempts so either his back is still bothering him or he is ready to bust out. Only time will tell.
Turning to the Nuggets Melo has struggled with various schemes and individual defenders in the playoffs over the years. I think finally he has a good matchup. He will be covered primarily by Peja and James Posey. We all know Peja has no chance covering Melo, but I do not think Posey can hang with him either. Posey has a rep of being a very good defender, but he does not have the quickness or strength to cover Melo one on one. They way Melo has been attacking the rim and posting up more frequently over the previous couple of weeks I think he has a big series.
Also the Nuggets have shown good progress over the course of the season in defending the pick and roll. Paul will always get his assists, but over the last two meetings, both in New Orleans, the Nuggets forced him into committing five turnovers in one game and six in the other. If the Nuggets can continue that success they will be in great shape.
Finally, I believe the Nuggets have one major intangible on their side and that is the red hot desire to finally win a first round playoff series. We have seen changes, some big (Chauncey Billups), some small (a slight uptick in Melo’s defense, George Karl standing during many games) in this team since last season and they have all been spurred by the desire to make a move in the playoffs. This is the year for that to happen and the players know it. I think we will see a focus and drive that we have not seen from them before.
Do not get me wrong, Chris Paul is a competitor and his will to win may be stronger than any individual Nugget player and David West is a fighter as well, but collectively I do not see the Hornets matching the Nuggets’ desire and that is a huge key to this matchup. We have seen how powerful the Nuggets can be when they play with focus and I think we are going to see a very focused group.
We have two more days until game day so look for plenty more coverage to come from the chat tonight to some video, a podcast appearance or two and the answers to questions not everyone will be asking such as can James Posey replace the great play the Hornets received last post season from Jannero Pargo?
Update: Hornets 24/7 has an incredible rundown of news covering both the Nuggets and Hornets and Andrew at Denver Stiffs lays out a blueprint for what the Nuggets must do differently this year to succeed in the playoffs.