OKLAHOMA CITY -- You’ve done nothing in this league until you show up on a scouting report.
Those are Chris Paul’s words, not mine, and they may help explain why the Hornets have cooled off a bit since their torrid start to the season. The Hornets lost for the fourth time in five games, 95-89 to the Thunder, and once again the offense fizzled after halftime. New Orleans scored only 19 points in the fourth quarter, and basically gave the game away with a ghastly stretch of nine consecutive empty trips in the last five minutes.
This all sounds too familiar to Hornets fans. Tonight they scored 41 points after the break; in the previous three defeats in the stretch they produced 38, 36, and 34.
“We competed tonight,” said Hornets coach Monty Williams. “David [West] missed some shots he normally makes, and I’ll go to the bank with that.”
West was 10-of-24, including 0-for-6 during the decisive run, but the Thunder seemed much better prepared for those shots than the Hornets’ early-season opponents. Kevin Durant swatted two of them after predictable, slow-developing isos for West, and foes have been equally well-prepared for New Orleans’ other offerings of late.
“People were like, ‘Jason Smith who?’” said Paul. “Now they run him off the jump shot every chance they get.”
That’s indeed true, as the reserve big man struggled (2-of-7, three turnovers) with Oklahoma City players selling out on his J and making him dribble. After a hot start, his last double-figure game was Nov. 5.
Smith isn’t the only one; that analysis applies just as well to the team as a whole. A lottery team a year ago, they may have been overlooked by some early opponents, and misjudged by a few who weren’t familiar with their new personnel. But now? The Hornets are firmly on the radar, and nobody is taking them lightly.
Paul, for his part, entered Monday’s games leading the league in PER, which makes it tough to nitpick his performance. However, Hornet observers note he’s become oddly deferential in second halves, and was again tonight. In previous seasons, he has trended the opposite way. One reason West was taking all those tough iso shots late in the game was because Paul wasn’t creating anything easier.
“That’s on me,” said Paul of his team’s late swoon. “That means we’re not executing.”
“I have to do better. I’m going to go home tonight, watch the game, figure out ways to help. As a point guard, I think it’s my fault. I pride myself on being able to win those games, up four with [five] minutes left.”
The Hornets could be fatigued from an admittedly difficult stretch of schedule, although Paul said he feels fine and noted he’s playing dramatically less than in past seasons (34.4 minutes per game entering tonight). He had enough juice to dive to the floor and win loose balls on three separate occasions, but he had only one fourth-quarter field goal, and no assists in the final stanza until a pair of cosmetic New Orleans baskets in the final 25 seconds.
What it all means, at this early juncture, is still uncertain. Perhaps this recent slump is the natural result of a solid team finding its level after an unexpectedly hot start. Perhaps it’s symbolic of Paul wanting his supporting cast to do more and, consciously or not, letting them win or lose the game. And perhaps it’s the inevitable result of a tough West Coast trip followed by a brutal Spurs-Thunder back-to-back.
We’ll know those answers better in the coming days, when the schedule-makers cut them some slack and the Hornets have some practice time to craft some counters to their opponent’s revised tactics.
What we know now, however, is this: An offense that was humming early in the year has become stuck in the mud, especially after halftime. And if it doesn’t get untracked, it threatens to derail one of the feel-good stories of the season’s first month.