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Game 73 Preview: Blazers vs. Hornets

Game Time:  5:00 p.m. Pacific  TV:  Comcast and NBA TV 

Once rivals for the last playoff seed available in the West, the Blazers and Hornets meet tonight as two teams headed in opposite directions.  Portland has won 10 of their last 13.  The Hornets, mostly without Chris Paul, have lost 13 of their last 17.  To be fair to New Orleans, their schedule has been brutal.  In those 17 games they've played Golden State twice and the Clippers once.  Every other team has been playoff-caliber, if not elite.  Still, the Hornets have had the dual problem of not being able to score enough and not defending well.  No matter which way you slice it, it's hard to overcome that combination.

The Hornets have had a couple of bright spots, both coming in their backcourt.  Paul's absence left a vacuum of minutes and shots.  Shooting guard Marcus Thornton has filled the latter, putting up double-digit attempts and blistering the nets from behind the arc.  He's also started to draw free throws, becoming a triple-threat.  That's added up to 6 games of 25 or more points in the last month and steady scoring in his other outings.  Point guard Darren Collison has racked up some impressive scoring outings of his own, including a 35-point game versus Dallas late last month and a 32-point deluge poured on the Spurs three weeks ago.  More impressive, Collison is averaging 10.4 assists this month, though astronomical outings against poor defensive teams have bolstered that number a bit.  Considering both of these guys are rookies the Hornets have made out pretty well.

The big news of the week has been Paul's return.  He played 21 minutes versus the Mavericks on Monday, 31 versus the Cavaliers on Wednesday.  He's still feeling his way around, shooting deep more than driving, fouling more than defending.  When he recovers fully he is one of the most devastating players in the game.  Let's hope that's not tonight.

Power forward David West has been the iron man for New Orleans this year, playing in all 72 games, averaging 19 points on a whisker under 50% shooting.  He put 25 points and 10 assists on the Mavericks in the Hornets' victory.   (Unfortunately that's the kind of effort the team needs to win nowadays.)   Gunner Peja Stojakovic has had his slow slip into obscurity interrupted by an abdominal strain and is out.  Center Emeka Okafor continues to disappoint with career lows in minutes, points, and rebounds.  He remains one of the few solid defensive anchors on the team, however.  Veterans Morris Peterson, James Posey, and Darius Songalia round out the rotation.  Though any of those three are still capable of good games collectively they've been underwhelming.

The Hornets will run the ball if they get a chance.  Otherwise they're pretty comfortable in the halfcourt with West and those guards.  They allow opponents a shockingly high percentage from the field.  Unless they plan on pounding the ball one-on-one versus Okafor tonight the Blazers should be able to find open looks.  If Portland does a good job keeping Okafor off of the glass they should be able to dominate the rebounding battle as well.  Watch for Andre Miller and Brandon Roy to try and exploit those young guards, making them pay in blood, sweat, and fear for any offense they might want to generate.  Paul remains a wildcard but if he's not 100% and if the Blazers play reasonably well (which they tend to do against teams that don't defend well) Portland should be able to take this game, even on the road.  The main bugaboo (besides not having the crowd behind them and a year-long tendency to lose the first game of back-to-backs) could be easing up after a great win against Dallas.  Let's hope the Blazers have that playoff seeding chart firmly in mind as they take the floor tonight.

Check out the New Orleans perspective at AtTheHive.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.

--Dave (