By DJ Toney Blare
In my season preview for the Hornets, I posted the belief that several “if’s” could make or break the team’s season and playoff hopes:
“If Peja plays 70 games, puts up 18-20 per; if B-Jax and the young guys give them some energy off the bench; if D-West or Tyson make serious leaps and join or almost join CP3 in the All-Star game (held in New Orleans this year); if Melvin Ely pimps the derby like the mobster…uh, if Melvin can spell Tyson and get rebounds…”
So far? So far 32-12, best in the West as we close out the 1st half of ‘07-‘08. That includes spotty bench play; Melvin Ely rockin a face mask for a game or two (along with his m’fckin ring) but everyone basically healthy (knocks on wood); Peja averaging 15ppg, but with some huge nights where he gets all 2003 from outside, D-West and Tyson making serious leaps (West especially), and Chris Paul creeping into the who-would-you-build-your-team-around debate. Under the radar on the networks and, sadly, even in our hometown, the Hornets have blown away all my expectations. Coming off a straight up “pistol-whipping,” as the sorta ill-timed newspaper headline read, of the Spurs, tonight’s another game where, all of a sudden, you expect the Hornets to beat a Western Conference contender.
The first thing I see in the tunnel is a small crowd around George Karl, who sits on a folding chair outside the Nuggets locker room. He talks about the need for consistentcy tonight, Marcus Camby’s right to the ASG, and JR Smith’s second half against Dallas as “a train wreck.” Albeit prompted, he says there was a “sadness” about the city as he walked around this afternoon, the first NBA guy I’ve heard even mention the state-of-affairs this year. After the crowd breaks up, I tell him that my family’s from Penn Hills, and the name of my father and uncle, who both came up with him. He says, cool, tell them I said hello.
I follow Karl into the locker room, but am immediately faced with a silent room full of players but no press, and AI and Melo are in the trainer’s room. I’ve been thinking about what Myles wrote, and now think about how this whole thing is like walking into a bar where not only do you know no one, but the lights are on and there’s nowhere to grab a drink, and even if you could, it’d just be flat cola anyway, so you stand there for a minute. There’s really nothing comparable to an NBA locker room in human society though. It’s another planet, full of millionaires who have shared an experience (and lack thereof) hardly any of us can get. Eh, I figure, I’m out.
During intros, we find out that there’ll be no Melo tonight. There’s a moment of silence before the anthem for Nicola Cotton, a female NOPD officer slain earlier today.
Any question of a Hornets letdown quickly disappears as the home team bashes Denver on the nose real quick like, jumping out to a 10-4 lead.
I’m sitting next to a guy from USA Today, and next to him is renowned columnist and Suns follower Jack McCallum of SI, who I read when I was a kid and SI was like the only sports magazine there was. He looks like a thinner Walter Matthau. Much respect to both of them and Jack Lemmon, too.
At this level, you notice how brutal AI’s life has been for all these years. He’s the same size as ever, and while he doesn’t penetrate quite so much, he still gets his bones rattled constantly. He can still stop on a dime, though. CP3 defends him tonight. K-mart’s playing alright, and the score gets to 19-15 with him doing some damage and some trash talk and way too much rim hanging. That’s ends when the Hornets go on a 14-4 run. A Najera 3 at the buzzer makes it 33-22.
This squat little dude behind me is irate. He’s got second row seats and his daughter on his lap and he’s squeezing her and barking at one of the head ushers, “Fix it! Call someone right now!” with a look in his eyes like they just told him someone shot his dog. As he berates the usher, a beefy cameraman stands up and completely blocks his view. The dude looks like his head’s going to explode all over his daughter, who apparently just saw Hannah Montana. Maybe he had to go that and now he’s just off the deep end.
AI and Carter start off with Kleiza, Najuera, and JR Smith subbed in. People boo JR Smith. I don’t know, that seems sorta easy. I mean, he really only hurts himself. The guy who travels with AI–I think it’s his uncle or manager, can’t remember–sits down next to me. He wears one of the dopest track suit combos I’ve ever seen. When JR drives the lane, throws down on everyone, and then slams from about 7 feet in the air down onto his shoulder, a woman behind us whines, “Suck it up, be a basketball player.”
“Don’t say that,” AI’s guy says to her.
We all figure JR just tore his shoulder out, but he gets up and the crowd cheers. Then he miraculously returns for the FT, and people boo. JR Smith inspires mixed passions.
The Hornets aren’t really interested in that, though, they just want to keep killing. The Honeybees dance troupe comes out and does a Rockettes number in black fishnets, and that kills. And then what announcers might label a “rejuvenated” Ryan Bowen starts killing it with his brand of knee-braced hustle and gym teacher fundamentals. With him and Ely providing size and energy, the NO bench is suddenly, uh, potent and very odd. Bowen and Ely, they remind of what AI said about him and Melo: “Two killers.”
We get a report that JR Smith, who disappeared in the tunnel not long after making that FT, is “Questionable” for the remainder of the game. A certain well-known columnist notes that “Questionable” is JR’s status as a human. JR is divisive like Larry Hagman.
Tonight’s crowd is amped, on their feet for the last few minutes of the half. MVP chants build for Chris Paul, and when has that ever happened in this arena? I wonder. The enraged squat dude is gone, but the rest of the guys in his row are freaking out about this Chris Paul kid, who apparently they hadn’t seen before. He and offensive rebounding are beating the hell out of Denver, and when Tyson snatches the 3rd board in one possession and takes it home, the crowd freaks. After a K-mart jumper, Peja hits a three to make it 56-38 with 2:00 in the half and Karl calls timeout. But the next time down, Paul faces Camby in a mismatch and immediately skips a pass to a back-cutting Pargo for two. That’s about all you need to know about this team right now, I write.
The half ends 63-40. Squat and angry man is back in his seat and now three ushers come to our table and tell me and AI’s guy that we need to get up, they’re going to move the table down. “Really?” we ask. Then I look back at that bitter chub and he’s directing and nodding. We wait for the tables to be moved and AI’s guy asks me what’s gonna happen here, meaning the Hornets and New Orleans. I tell him, it’s a lot of things in this city: it’s real hard to say, and we don’t have much money. This whole time, a duo of acrobats does back flips and such on a trampoline at midcourt. When AI’s guy sits down, the squat dude growls, “Hey, don’t sit there.” His pretty little daughter bouncing on his knee. AI’s guy is on his cell and ignores him but this dude won’t quit, he paid a lot of money, I guess. I shrug at AI’s guy, who tells me and an usher, “We woulda kicked his ass the f* outta the arena by now.” I’m like, you mean if you and AI were in charge, yeah,…oh, in Denver. He means in Denver. I say, I told you, we don’t have any money, so Lil’ Pain gets to have his way. Anyway this madman behind us is again silent, his view unimpeded, the acrobats bouncing right in his line of red-fury sight.
David West hits one right over K-Mart to start things. I don’t know if West is an All-Star, but the Hornets couldn’t have dreamed of a better development. On the next NO possession, CP3 does an ill crossover and ends up falling after hitting the lay-up. K-Mart wants to stare him down, or some outdated ego-trip, but CP3 bounces up in his grill, and then back down the court.
Anthony Carter: did he ever box while he was playing in Israel? Was his cut man a little, I don’t know, shaky in the hands?
The Hornets are using the Denver D like a speed bag, pounding and pounding, right in rhythm, unrelenting, and the Nuggets can only bounce back, try to score a little, and take more hits. JR Smith is back, hits 2 consecutive 3’s, then throws up 3rd with his legs in the Jordan pose, and the shot smacks the backboard way to the right. 81-59 Hornets.
Hugo the Mascot misses a dunk then allows “Hugo Jr.,” a wee boy in the same teal get-up, a try at dunking on a mini-hoop. Hugo Jr. blows it, too, proving once again that he who wears his old man’s tights smells like his old man’s ass. Yeah, I said it.
I’m thinking the Denver locker-room isn’t going to be any more fun after the game than it was before. Tyson puts down alley-oop, I don’t know, number 5 tonight, and Melvin Ely is motoring towards fan favorite status. The quarter ends with another standing ovation.
Tonight’s crowd of 15,601 is as intense as any this year. Numbers are important now—the Hornets need to do this well or better from here on out if the city wants to avoid an opt-out clause recently negotiated into the lease by George Shinn. The clause comes up at the end of next year, and the next year, and the next year. Things aren’t quite as simple or as cheap as all that, but it’s still a little unnerving. Or it might not mean anything. This team and the crowds are peaking right as the ASG comes to town. Again, all things considered, there’s no way any of us should’ve expected either of them to get this good this fast.
Things resume with a CP3 breakaway and dunk, but he’s given a stupid tech for hanging on the rim and not being named after a chain of stores. The MVP chants don’t stop, nor does CP3’s temper. The Nuggets go and cut the lead to 15 fairly quickly, and then Paul takes another fastbreak, this time right at K-Mart, but can’t finish. Without wasting a second, he then steals the Nuggets pass and hooks a pass to Ely, who lays it in. 93-76. No one in the L is playing better than Chris Paul right now. Maybe as good, but right now he’s at another level.
And he is pissed. He always plays angry, but even with a 17 point lead, Chris Paul looks like he and that squat angry dude share an awful, infuriated brotherhood, like Eli and Plainview. And just as that fire led the toad father to move an entire press desk and never smile at his daughter, so does it move CP3 to hit downright gazelle-like Ryan Bowen for a dunk, +1. The next time down, he stops and pops. 23-15-8 so far. When K-mart takes a shot to the balls and bends over in pain, CP3 stands next to him, hands on his knees, just for an extra few seconds. The score is 99-76. What.
After a Nuggets TO, Ely over K-mart. Then growing giraffe calf Julian Wright replaces Bowen and catches two alley-oops in a row. Chris sits down to MVP chants, one rebound shy of a triple double and not one shred of doubt as to who ran things in this town tonight. Inspired garbage time from Hornets reserves sends the crowd home happy, with the Hornets’ 9th win in a row, 113-97
Karl seems depressed. “Other than Boston,” he hasn’t been more impressed with an opponent. The Denver locker room is deflated, as in all the air gone, people sitting around all flat. Melo’s lying on the training table in street clothes. On his way out, AI (full corduroy, just like Myles said, like you’d pick up at one of those 125th St. hip-hop 7-11’s) notes the younger man’s outfit and asks if he’s going to the casino. I stand there a minute, tell AI’s guy to be careful tonight, it’s Mardi Gras, y’dig, and split.