The Bucks saw that combo early and all too often, as Paul patiently carved up a collapsing and mostly slow-footed Bucks defense to the tune of 17 points (6/11 shots), 16 dimes, and just a single turnover in helping New Orleans hold off the Bucks 95-91 in the opener in the Big Easy. West was Paul's favorite target with 22 points on 14 shots in only 27 minutes, most of those coming on open looks from 17-20 feet, but the wafer-thin Hornets also got just enough balance and just enough defense to scrape out their sixth straight home opening win.
Doing their best to play through the Andrew Bogut in the post, the Bucks couldn't buy a shot early and trailed by 10 late in the first, but seven points in 40 seconds from Corey Maggette and threes from Brandon Jennings and Carlos Delfino helped the Bucks snag an improbable lead 30-29 lead after one. The teams then battled back and forth until late in the third. Jennings, Delfino and Maggette helped the Bucks twice extend to five point edges, but Paul flipped the switch as New Orleans scored the final 11 of the period. First he found Jason Smith and the Artist Formerly Known as Peja Stojakovic for a layup and triple, respectively, before taking things into his own hands with a runner and a buzzer-beating three to stake New Orleans to a 78-72 lead after three.
New Orleans certainly didn't shoot lights out (43% fg, 4/17 threes), but Paul's ability to wriggle around screens, draw defenders and pick out open teammates gave them enough good chances to prevent the misfiring Bucks from getting closer than a point in the fourth. Delfino trimmed the lead to 92-91 on a catch-and-shoot corner three with 83 seconds left, but Jennings fouled a driving Paul on the ensuing possession and the Bucks couldn't score again in the final minute. Drew Gooden rushed a shot with 55 seconds left and the struggling John Salmons (2/8 fg, 4 to) didn't get any help with six seconds left when Trevor Ariza appeared to rake his arm as he went up for a potentially tying three. No whistle, no win for the Bucks. And given how they looked for much of the night, that was probably the correct outcome.
The Bucks had their share of encouraging performances, including double-doubles from Andrew Bogut (15 pts, 15 rebs), Brandon Jennings (15 pts, 10 ast, 1 to), and Drew Gooden (15 pts, 11 rebs). But aside from that trio and the small forward combo of Carlos Delfino (19 pts on 12 shots) and Corey Maggette (16 pts, 8/8 ft in 20 min) there was no help.
Carlos Delfino - 38 min, 7/12 fg, 5/10 threes, 19 pts, 5 reb, 3 stl, 1 to, +8
This site has been something of a Carlitos lovefest of late, so I was rather pleased to see him validate all my positivity with a classic Delfino game. He had his catch-and-shoot working--the only Buck who could make that claim--did his part on defense, and just generally played the sort of complementary game that makes him the right choice to start at small forward. Maximum contribution with minimum touches.
Andrew Bogut - 36 min, 6/12 fg, 3/10 ft, 15 pts, 15 rebs, 1 ast, 1 blk, 1 to
Bogut was effective in spite of obvious right arm rustiness, laboring at times but proving once again that getting him on the court is hugely beneficial regardless of how healthy he might be. The Bucks tried to get him involved early with a series of post touches, but he had some trouble getting good position against the stout Emeka Okafor and made just 1/5 fg to start the game. Thankfully Bogut settled down as the game wore on, dropping in four lefty hooks and a pair of two-handed dunks to account for all six of his buckets. Maybe he should start shooting free throws with his left hand as well, because he seemed to have zero confidence at the line: 3/10 from the stripe including four misses down the stretch. At this pace we may see other teams breaking out the hack-a-Bogut strategy soon.
Brandon Jennings - 41 min, 5/14 fg, 2/6 threes, 3/4 ft, 15 pts, 10 ast, 2 reb, 1 stl, 1 to
As much as Paul was the star of the night, Jennings actually acquitted himself rather respectably in his first professional matchup with the league's best PG. On the positive side, he gamely chased Paul around the court on defense, worked the ball around the court well, and was 3/4 inside 10 feet. Yay, converting at the rim. But he was also 0/4 from midrange and in general it's obvious he's got a ways to go before he can claim to be in Paul's league. Live and learn.
10. Jennings declared last month that he wants to average 10 assists per game this season, a rather ambitious figure for a guy who averaged less than six per contest as a rookie and totaled double-digits just three times in 89 games a year ago. I'd probably be happy with seven, but playing against the active leader in ast/game may have brought the best out of Jennings' distribution. By the way, Chris Paul's career assist average: 10.0 assists per game.
10. Same number, different meaning. Getting to the line has been a theme of much speculation over the past few months, and Bogut's 10 free throw attempts should be a good sign for a guy who didn't have more than eight in any of his 69 games last year. The down side? Well, you have to actually make them. Besides that, a number of Bogut's trips to the line came off loose ball fouls rather than acts of offensive aggression.
+5. Watching Maggette tear through the Hornets' second unit late in the first quarter had me feeling rather optimistic about the battle of the benches. My thinking was if the starters can play Paul and company even, the bench could take care of the rest. But Maggette began settling for jump shots in the second half and no one else off the bench was up for the challenge as Nola finished with a 27-22 scoring advantage off the bench.
Delfino/Maggette. It's probably too early to say "I told you so" to those who wanted Maggette starting ahead of Delfino, but for now let's just say this: I'm feeling pretty good about the Bucks' SF rotation. You always need somebody who can spot up and do the little things, which is why Delfino makes sense with the starting five. And you always need someone in the second unit who can create shots and make things happen on their own. Playing with the starters, Maggette's aggressiveness could easily come off as selfish; playing with the second unit it's a huge blessing. On paper I also like that he's paired with a spot-up guy like Ilyasova in the second unit.
Gooden/Bogut. As much as I appreciate Luc Mbah a Moute's ability to be effective at the 4 in spite of his size, and as much as it might have been useful having someone more mobile keep track of West, there's something really nice about having a starting PF who can make a jump shot, score a bit in the post, and rebound. You know, a real PF. Gooden may have been a step slow recovering in P&R, but overall I still like the way he complements Bogut up front. He played a bit of 5 in the second half--Larry Sanders didn't get a callback after some early minutes--but you can tell that the 4 is where he belongs.
It's on. It's always hard to find positives when your team loses a very winnable road game, but the Bucks probably deserve some slack given the fact that they've barely practiced together as a complete group. Besides, basketball is back...and don't worry, it'll get better.
Salmons. With CDR injured, Skiles didn't have many options at the 2 so you can understand why he went with the guy who will be starting over the long term. But Salmons just didn't look comfortable and couldn't get any easy looks early to get him on track. Salmons always seems to be going half-speed so it was tough to gauge how much he's being slowed by his knee at the moment, but in general the Bucks seemed hesitant to run plays for him.
Bench. They're a bit short-handed, but the bench had to be better against a thin team like the Hornets. Dooling looked particularly lost, though the injury to CDR meant that he was also playing more SG than you'd otherwise expect. And Ilyasova's preseason bricklaying continued, missing all four of his jump shots en route to a team-worst -17 differential in just 15 minutes.
Sanders' debut. Larry Sanders replaced Bogut late in the first for his first real NBA minutes, and quickly made a nice pass along the baseline for a Maggette layup. Other than that? Not much. He uncharacteristically airmailed an open jumper from the right baseline and missed two free throws after a foul near midcourt. He did come back to swat a Jerryd Bayless shot near the first quarter buzzer, but Skiles didn't see enough to bring him back for more bur in the second half.
Comment of the Night
I was unaware we had to play the Zebras and ourselves as well…