The New Orleans Hornets host the Oklahoma City Thunder (8 PM ET) in a battle of teams looking to make a run deep into the Western Conference playoffs. To make those runs, home court advantage in the first round is of primary importance. That between these two teams, the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz only two will have the home advantage in the first round makes every intra-group skirmish a vital battle with ramifications.
Keep in mind that last season the No. 4 Jazz and No. 5 Denver Nuggets ended the season with identical 53-29 records, but the Jazz earned home court advantage due to a tiebreaker. (The Nuggets won anyway.) The bottom three seeds of the conference had matching 50-32 records; the loser of the tiebreakers, OKC, had to face the L.A. Lakers while the Spurs and Blazers drew the softer Mavericks and Suns, respectively. Tiebreakers matter in the West.
Oklahoma City has two wins over the Hornets already this season, including a 97-92 victory at New Orleans Arena on Dec. 10. In that game, Russell Westbrook shredded the strong Hornets defense for 29 points; his counterpart Chris Paul summoned just 18. The two ought to figure heavily again on Monday, with the Hornets needing help from David West, Emeka Okafor and the bench to counter Kevin Durant.
Should the Thunder beat the Hornets on Monday or when the teams match up for the final time on Feb. 2, Oklahoma City will carry a tiebreaker for the season. If the Hornets sweep the final two games of the season series, the head-to-head tiebreaker will be moot should the teams end the season with equal records.
To get over New Orleans again, the Thunder will have to find a way to crack the Hornets' improving opposition. In a piece for the New York Times, Rob Mahoney dug into what makes the Hornets click ... and suffer. Perhaps no line sums up the gift and curse of ace defender Trevor Ariza like this one:
Ariza’s defensive reputation precedes him, and though his hands are still the barren wasteland where offensive possessions go to die, he has delivered on his ability to hound opposing wing players.
For Hornets news and analysis, check out At The Hive. For more on the Thunder, visit Welcome To Loud City.