The Hornets come into today's matinee having lost two straight after beginning the season 4-0. Friday night in Portland they squandered a 27 point lead against the team with the worst record in the NBA last season, so you can bet that Byron Scott had them run a couple extra sprints in practice Saturday. Unfortunately, they're facing a Clippers team that has had three days off, and therefore is rested and prepared. Mike Dunleavy loves to develop game plans, and rest assured he's got something cooked up.
It has to start with containing Chris Paul, which is easier said than done. However, with the emergence of Shaun Livingston as a perimeter defender (if not yet a consistently great player at both ends), Dunleavy does have two guys he can run at Paul. Except for when CP3 is resting, either Ross or Livingston will be on him. And one of them may join him on the Hornets bench, just in case.
The funny thing about the Hornets is that their hot start does not seem related to their off-season changes so much as to continued growth in the team overall. Peja Stojakovic is averaging 15 points but only shooting 38% (somehow, he is shooting almost 45% on 3's). Tyson Chandler isn't giving them much more, so far, than P.J. Brown. But Paul is playing well, as is David West. And, like the Clippers, they have good balance, with 6 players currently averaging double figures.
The Headline of today's LA Times' Clippers Report is "Low-post play is high-concern issue" with Jason Reid highlighting the early season struggles of Chris Kaman and Elton Brand.
The low-post play of Brand and Kaman is the foundation of the Clippers' offense, and their ineffectiveness has prompted Coach Mike Dunleavy to adjust.
The problem with making big observations this early in the season is that the quirks of the schedule have as much to do with a player's stats as the player. The Clippers have played 5 games so far - 2 against the Suns (no one for Kaman to guard) and 1 against the Mavericks (Kaman started guarding Dirk, but that didn't work out so well). Even against Portland, after Magloire got into foul trouble, the Blazers went small and the Clippers matched them. Kaman is averaging less than 25 minutes a game, fewest of MD's 8 man rotation, but that will not be the case against teams with more traditional bigs, starting today.
As for Brand, I refuse to get caught up in all the hand-wringing. Elton has never been a fast starter in his NBA career, and the simple fact remains that the one game where Elton scored 20 is the one game the Clippers lost. Teams are paying significantly more attention to Elton on defense than they ever have in the past, sending quick double teams at him. The Clippers balanced attack has made them pay for those doubles, and we're 4-1. Meanwhile, Elton's averaging 9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. Where's the problem? Sure, he's 12-22 from the line, but do we really think he completely forgot how to shoot free throws when he became a movie producer? Elton will be fine.
The Hornets and Clippers match up with each other pretty well, but the Clippers should have a big advantage in the front court - Brand vs. West and Kaman vs. Chandler. Blanket will probably draw Peja, and Ross will start off on CP3, leaving Sam on Desmond Mason. Mason will be a tough assignment for Sam, but if the Hornets are going to their fourth best scorer looking for baskets, then the strategy is working.
It's hard to reconcile the results from last season's Clippers-Hornets games. The Clippers set an NBA record, holding the Hornets to 16 second half points in their March 1st meeting. But the Hornets won the other two meetings, and hung 120 points on the Clips 20 days later. So go figure.
The Hornets will rely a lot on penetrate and kick, which has definitely hurt the Clippers in the past. How effectively Ross and Livingston can stay in front of Paul, and then the Clippers can rotate to shooters, will determine the outcome. Based on the D in the second half against Dallas, and with three days to prepare, I expect a relatively simple victory.