Denver's season turned around when Chauncey Billups arrived from Denver and immediately took control of this talented young team. Chris Paul has been at the controls of the Hornets all year and has kept them on the playoff track in spite of a rash of injuries to some of their key players. The Hornets limped down the stretch, losing six of their last nine, and their health is their biggest issue. Denver roared into the last week of the season, winning 13 of 14 games in March and April, before losing two of its last three.
Denver's offense versus New Orleans' defense
Denver is the sixth-highest scoring team in the NBA and will run in waves at every opportunity. The Nuggets play at the league's fifth-fastest pace, rank fifth in field-goal percentage and 13th in 3-point shooting, and they operate with the NBA's seventh-highest offensive efficiency. New Orleans ranks ninth in defensive efficiency and seventh in field goal percentage defense, and gives up the fifth-fewest points per game in the league.
The Hornets' primary area of focus defensively will be in transition -- getting back, matching up and preventing easy baskets. Denver will take a lot of quick shots early in the clock and won't hesitate to pull from 3 on the break. Billups will get an early high ball screen or look for Carmelo Anthony right away, and the Nuggets will set an early screen to get Melo to his favorite spot on the elbow extended or on the wing.
New Orleans will need a healthy Tyson Chandler inside, as Nene has been an effective scorer in the post, and Chandler provides the only real shot-blocking threat. J.R. Smith brings instant offense off the bench, as the Nuggets' second unit pushes the pace more than the starters. The Hornets will have to be structured and organized, and anticipate the Nuggets' changing personnel in their defensive schemes.
New Orleans' offense versus Denver's defense
The Hornets could not be a greater contrast to the Nuggets offensively, as only Detroit and Portland play at a slower pace. The Hornets score the fifth-fewest points in the league and are 13th in offensive efficiency, 14th in field goal percentage and 17th in 3-point shooting. Denver's defense ranks eighth in efficiency and fifth in defensive field goal percentage, and the Nuggets are third in the league in steals and second in blocked shots. They have no interest in allowing the Hornets to play at that slow, methodical pace, so their focus will be to pressure and attempt to force New Orleans into quick shots and turnovers so the Nuggets can get out and run. That has been the case in the two Nuggets wins over the Hornets this year, as New Orleans turned the ball over 17 times in each of those losses.
Having Chandler back on the floor opens up the Hornets' attack on the screen-and-roll with Chris Paul, and provides the lob option at the end of Paul's drives. Paul will orchestrate, penetrate and find the shooters when the help comes. Denver will try multiple defenders and even play zone to try to slow Paul down. David West is the post option for the Hornets and he will back down or face up from the block, post extended or the elbow. The Hornets really haven't had their full offensive arsenal in any game against Denver this year, so the Nuggets will have to prepare for personnel and situations they haven't seen yet this season.
The NBA's best point guard kept the injury-riddled Hornets near the top of the West as long as he could, averaging 28.3 points on 53 percent shooting in April. Paul led the NBA in assists and steals, while having career bests in almost every offensive category. He shot 50 percent from the field while playing more minutes and taking more shots than he had in any previous season. Paul may have to carry a huge offensive load if injuries continue to deplete his supporting cast. He will control tempo, get his teammates involved and use his creative, change-of-speed explosiveness to get wherever he needs to go to make a play. Paul averaged 20.8 points and 11 assists on 50 percent shooting versus Denver this year.
Billups' arrival in Denver was the best illustration in NBA history of what a difference a true point guard makes. Nuggets players have enjoyed being participants in Billups' offense, rather than spectators in Iverson's. Billups' low assist numbers are deceptive, as he's the best player in the league at getting the ball to the right guy at the right time, often making the set-up pass that leads to the scoring pass or drive. His scoring and 3-point shooting percentage are his highest in the past three years, and he will look to use his size if guarded by the smaller Paul. Billups saw a lot of James Posey and struggled from the field in the first three games against the Hornets, but came back with 26 points and five 3s in the March 25 win in New Orleans. Billups shot only 41 percent from the field in March and April.
He replaced Morris Peterson in the starting lineup this season and provides scoring and 3-point shooting. Butler averaged 8.3 points in four games versus Denver, and shot only 29 percent from 3 in April.
The superathletic Jones has found a role in Denver, defending the opponent's best scoring guard. He will match up with Paul much of the time and will get only a handful of shots on the offensive end. He'll score in transition and on an occasional drive, and is always a threat for a tip dunk on the offensive glass. Jones is 11-for-17 from 3 for the season.
Peja posted his lowest scoring average and lowest 3-point shooting percentage in the past decade, and missed 21 games nursing an ailing back. He still shot 37.8 percent from 3, but shot 44 percent last year and has shot 40 percent for his career. He's a better defender than he gets credit for, but he has to make 3s to help this team and create space for Paul. Stojakovic made only 3 of his last 15 3s down the stretch, and had a woeful 4 points in 42 minutes Wednesday night against the Spurs. However, in three games against Denver this year, he averaged 20.7 points on 50% shooting from 3.
His experience with Team USA and the arrival of Billups have made Anthony into a better defender and more complete player. His scoring and overall field goal percentage are down from a year ago, but he has played with more consistent effort at both ends, although he still begs for calls because George Karl remains convinced that Anthony gets no love from officials. He is a prime-time, go-to scorer with his jab/shot-fake game from the wing and his ability to attack the rim in traffic. Anthony is shooting the highest 3-point percentage of his career, and he has been a tough matchup for New Orleans, averaging 25.7 points on 51 percent shooting in three games this year. The Nuggets' Jan. 28 loss to the Hornets came with Anthony sitting out his 10th game with a broken bone in his shooting hand. He shot poorly in the month of April, hitting only 40 percent from the field and making only 2 of 14 3-point shots.
West had another All-Star caliber season while playing without a scoring or shot-blocking center as his bodyguard. He posted a career high in scoring, while shooting 88 percent from the free throw line. With Denver trying to block everything at the rim, West may go on the attack and try to live at the foul line in this series. He was a beast in April, averaging 24.4 points and 9.3 rebounds on 53 percent shooting, but neither he nor Paul could keep the Hornets from fading down the stretch. He averaged only 18 points on 40 percent shooting against the Nuggets, who can gang up on him defensively without Chandler on the floor.
Martin brings defense, rebounding, shot-blocking and athleticism, and he averaged 11.8 points and blocked eight shots in the four games with the Hornets. He had 22 points on 10-for-12 from the floor in Melo's absence in the Nuggets' Jan. 28 loss. Martin may have to step up his scoring again if Anthony struggles, but K-Mart's primary mission will be to defend David West.
There weren't many lobs and dunks this year for the Hornets' offense, nor were there many blocked shots for their defense as Chandler got hurt, got traded, got traded back and got hurt again. Chandler started the season poorly and did not play with the same effort he had during the Hornets' playoff run last year -- thus the attempted trade. He came back to the Hornets with a renewed sense of purpose, but he missed all but one game in April with a bad ankle and did not play in any of the four games against the Nuggets this year. His presence changes everything in this series, and his March numbers of 7.4 points and 9.4 rebounds will be desperately needed.
Having battled injuries his whole career, Nene had the healthiest and best overall season of his career, starting 75 games, shooting 60 percent from the floor and giving the Nuggets a true scoring threat in the low post. He will score backing down or facing up, and will become a primary focus when Denver settles into a half-court attack. He did not shoot less than 57 percent in any month of the season. Nene averaged 11.3 points on 54 percent shooting in three games with New Orleans, but this series will be the first opportunity for him to match up with Tyson Chandler this season.
New Orleans' key reserves
Posey was supposed to be the missing piece to the championship puzzle, but he's been slowed by an elbow injury late in the season. He will defend Billups much of the time, and even Anthony in certain situations. He shot only 17% from 3 against Denver in four games this year. If the Hornets can keep games close, he is a clutch playoff performer who can make a game-winning play at either end of the floor.
Daniels is a solid veteran backup at the point, but he can't provide the scoring and speed of Jannero Pargo from last year's playoff team. Daniels has averaged 23 minutes in 75 playoff games for four different teams in his career.
Ely played extended minutes the last week of the season and will play the 5 if Chandler is hobbled. He averaged 3.8 points and 3.0 rebounds in 18 minutes the last five games of the year.
He averaged 16 minutes a game in April, and brings energy and effort to the frontcourt.
Brown had 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting in the Hornets' Jan. 28 win, but minutes have been few down the stretch.
Denver's key reserves
He started 18 games this year, but is most effective off the bench as Denver's third-leading scorer and best 3-point shooter. He averaged 22 points on 48 percent 3-point shooting in April, making almost five 3s per game. He had high games of 45 and 40 points this season, and averaged 21.3 points against New Orleans on 52 percent shooting, including 32 points in the Nuggets' Nov. 27 loss.
The NBA's second-leading shot-blocker ignites the Nuggets and the home crowd with high-flying dunks and blocks. The Birdman is one of the league's best energy guys, and blocked four shots a game down the stretch in April. He averaged five points and six rebounds in 23 minutes per game against New Orleans this season.
Carter is a steady backup to Billups who can score, handle and defend. He played 23 minutes a game in four games versus New Orleans this year, scoring only 2.5 points but passing out 5.3 assists.
He brings scoring and a physical, athletic presence off the bench. He's looking to drive more, as he shot only 23 percent from 3 the last half of the season.
Another energy guy who gets steals and deflections and keeps possessions alive with offensive rebounds and loose balls. Balkman makes the most of his minutes and had back-to-back double-doubles in March.
The Hornets finally have everybody back, but in various stages of health and readiness. If Stojakovic and Chandler are near 100 percent, New Orleans comes in with almost the same firepower that got them one game from the conference finals last year. But if the Nuggets are at full strength, with a former Finals MVP running the show, Denver's talent and depth may be too much for New Orleans to overcome.
Prediction: Nuggets in 6
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.