Big game tonight. Big, large, gargantuan... BIG. Or maybe it's not that big, but it feels big to me. Basically, all games against Western Conference playoff teams are now "big games," and a win tonight means a 3-1 series win against Denver and a step towards securing homecourt advantage in the playoffs. However, it will only be the beginning. This will be the last battle with Denver, but there are games against Utah, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix looming large on the schedule. The "easy" stretch of the Hornets schedule is essentially over. There will be no more long home stands in which the Hornets are facing moslty sub .500 teams. In fact, there are only four games against sub .500 teams left on the schedule and all four of those games are on the road.
So it's time for the Hornets to play some seriously good basketball. It starts here tonight with the 45-26 Denver Nuggets. Denver is a solid team. They were a 50-win team last year and they will be a 50-win team this year. Their continued relevance surprised a lot of people this year, and much of the credit for the team's success has gone to point guard Chauncey Billups. I think guys like Nene and Chris Andersen should also get some of that credit. Nene is having a career year, averaging 14.6 ppg and 7.8 rpg on 60.3% shooting. Fifteen points a game on 60% from the field is a pretty great stat. As for Andersen, he's become one of the best backup big men in the league. The Hornets could really use the 6 points, 6 boards and 2 blocks that Andersen gives the Nuggets off the bench. But let's forget about all that. Despite Denver's talented roster, I firmly believe that the Hornets are a better team. Along with the Dallas Mavericks, the Phoenix Suns and the Portland Trailblazers, Denver is one of four playoff-caliber Western Conference teams that I know the Hornets can beat in a seven-game series. That's not to say that I don't think the Hornets can't hang with the rest of the West, they can, but its those four teams that the Hornets match up most favorably with.
But can the Hornets beat the Nuggets tonight? I certainly hope so. I've yet to hear whether or not Peja and Chandler will be playing. While the Hornets have been banged up in each of the three meetings with the Nuggets this year, having one or both of those guys available would make me a lot more confident about this game. Regardless, tonight will be a great opportunity for the Hornets to make a statement and show their fans and the rest of the league that they are still very much in the mix.
Update: Peja, Tyson, Hilton and Bowen are all "questionable" for tonight's game.
Random fact: Against Denver this season, Hilton is averaging 10.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game on 70.5% shooting