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|The showdown between Chauncey Billups and Chris Paul could be the key to tonight's Nuggets-Hornets matchup.|
The names might not set off cash registers in the minds of TV execs, but we have ourselves a marquee matchup Wednesday night, a pairing that very well could be a preview of a Western Conference semifinal.
According to the Playoff Odds, Denver and New Orleans project to finish second and third in the West, respectively, and that has been the case for most of the past several weeks. So tonight's matchup, along with their next and final meeting March 25, could go a long way toward determining home-court advantage for such a pairing and in turn could decide which side might prevail.
Yet we've heard remarkably little about these two teams in recent weeks. The league's "power four" teams have hogged most of the spotlight in the first half of the season, and any spare glare has focused on the return of Dwyane Wade and the struggles of traditional powers like Dallas, Phoenix and Detroit.
So spare me a few seconds to talk about what is potentially a very intriguing pairing. Think power versus speed at the point in the form of Chauncey Billups against Chris Paul. Think J.R. Smith facing off against the coach who banished him. Think high-scoring Carmelo Anthony against defensive ace James Posey, or the power forward version of scorer versus stopper in David West against Kenyon Martin.
Right now, Denver is third and New Orleans is fourth in the West, and with San Antonio about to play 10 of its next 11 on the road, there's a very good chance they'll be second and third by the end of next month. They are fifth and seventh, respectively, in the Power Rankings, and as in the Playoff Odds, they've been holding those positions for some time now.
And perhaps most impressively, they've been able to survive without their stars. Denver's 100-85 win in Memphis on Tuesday moved it to 6-3 since Anthony went out with a broken hand, an impressive mark considering seven of its nine opponents had winning records. On the season, Melo has missed 14 games and the Nuggets have gone 9-5, an indication of the team's depth at the wings.
Meanwhile, New Orleans has won three of four without West -- doubly amazing since Tyson Chandler missed three of those games, and the Hornets aren't exactly overflowing with quality frontcourt players. So far, coach Byron Scott has managed to paper over the gap with a Sean Marks here, a Ryan Bowen there and a steady diet of junk defenses, but the Hornets need at least one of the two to come back soon. They will, but perhaps not soon enough -- West will be a game-time decision Wednesday night, while Chandler isn't expected to play.
Fittingly, the last two matchups between these two sides resulted in a composite score of 206-205 in favor of the Nuggets. However, both of those contests were in Denver, while tonight and the finale both are in the Big Easy. While it's a little early to look at playoff pairings, one can see how it might greatly help the Nuggets to steal one on the road in the quest for the West's second seed.
Unusually, this will be the third game between the two sides that Chandler has missed -- he's missed only nine games all season -- so we still won't get a chance to see what he can do against the suddenly hyper-efficient Nene at the center spot.
But if there's a key Wednesday night, it's at point guard. Paul outplayed Billups in each of the first two meetings; with Anthony missing, Billups will need to make it something close to a draw for the Nuggets to have any hopes of scratching out a road win.
If not, there might be life for the Hornets after all. All anyone talks about is what a disappointment they are, yet with a win tonight, they'll be tied with San Antonio in the loss column for the No. 2 seed, and they have a much more favorable schedule the rest of the way a situation that doesn't sound altogether different from the one in which they found themselves last season.
So while it might not get front-page billing, pay attention. When we look back on the regular season later this spring, these two remaining Denver-New Orleans contests could end up proving quite important.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.