A Daily Babble Production
In light of another very convincing victory for the New Orleans Hornets over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs last night -- and with a full day of second-round Celtics craziness coming up -- this morning seems the time to pay some further homage to a Hornets team that despite our predictions to the contrary has looked excellent thus far in each of the first two rounds.
Today's focus: a man who is for some far too easily forgotten on this team.
When good friend and Columbia Missourian reporter Bill Powell and I chatted about the Hornets between the first two games of this series, Bill found it odd that my first few comments about the team centered on the importance of All-Stars Chris Paul and David West, then on center Tyson Chandler and finally, after several minutes about the three of them, Peja Stojakovic.
Now perhaps I'm just an idiot who wasn't thinking about this team in the right context. But from observations through a season talking basketball with folks from a myriad of cities and fan bases, I'm inclined to lean with Bill's assertion that my line of discussion wasn't all that far from the general perception of this team: That the Hornets are about Paul, West and the 'other guys.'
I have been guilty of this at times this season, if not of the "Paul and West" afflication then certainly of the "Paul, West, Chandler and everyone else" line of thinking. Unquestionably, those three deserve plenty of credit. Paul and West were the All-Stars, and both clearly earned their trips. CP3 is a legitimate top-three MVP candidate. West is one of the most dangerous mid-range jump shooters in the game and a good rebounder to boot. Chandler has become a defensive stalwart who also does a lot of rebounding and a lot of dunking.
But we would have to be fools to overlook what a certain small forward has meant to this New Orleans team (it certainly wouldn't be the first time the phrases "Steve Weinman" and "fool" were associated, and I can just about promise that it won't be the last).
(More after the jump)
We're talking here about a 30-year-old small forward who has made three All-Star appearances, averaged 20-plus points per game four times this decade and never fallen below 16.4 points per during that span despite being hampered by major injury problems over the past three seasons.
This is a guy who has made a living as a pure shooter, knocking down 40.5 percent of his three-point attempts for his career and sitting at third all-time with an 89.4 percent accuracy clip from the free throw line.
Despite hitting that low-water 16.4 points per game mark this year, this is a guy who was had his most efficient shooting season in years while being an incredibly important cog in making the Hornets' offense go.
Stojakovic shot the ball less than he has at any point since 2000, yet his accuracy was impeccable this season. He set career highs in three-point shooting (44.1 percent) and foul shooting (92.9 percent), and his true shooting percentage of 58.1 was excellent for a swingman who functions primarily as an outside shooter. The three-point shooting mark was good for fourth in the league, and he led the Association from the charity stripe.
But Peja's importance goes way beyond the individual numbers. This guy has defined all season what it means to stretch the floor for an offense. He opens up the court for everybody around him because he simply can't be left alone. As fantastic as Chris Paul is, he has gotten into the lane with even greater ease this season thanks to having a healthy Peja hanging out on the perimeter demanding attention. Similarly, Peja's presence has only helped space the floor to allow West to keep slipping into open spaces in that 15-to-18 foot range for his own deadly jumper. There is no doubt that the two All-Stars on this year's New Orleans team are excellent playrs on their own, but the impact of having a fully functional Stojakovic around can't be measured.
Speaking of that impact, the man has only picked it up in the playoffs. By picked it up, we mean really hopped a level. Or four. Entering last night's Game 2 against San Antonio, Peja was still only scoring 16.8 points per game in the playoffs, but he was doing it with even greater efficiency, shooting 45 percent from the field and and an absurd 59.4 from deep to go with 93.3 percent shooting from the foul line. He had already burned the Spurs for 22 points in the opener.
He followed it up by going bonkers again: 8-for-13 from the field, 5-for-7 from three, 25 points, 6 rebounds. Stojakovic came up particularly large with 12 points in the 36-18 third quarter that decided the game, and he followed it up with the big trey in the fourth quarter to extend the lead back to 16 with barely five minutes to play in the fourth, effectively icing the ball game. It was the same story as it's been all season: Shooter hangs out on the perimeter to keep defense honest. Defense doesn't stay honest. Shooter burns them.
The luscious scoring averages might be down for Peja Stojakovic these days, but not much else is. The efficiency has been there all year, and it has only increased in the postseason. The veteran leadership of a guy who has eight seasons of playoff experience under his belt hasn't hurt either.
And his importance is just as high as ever as a result.