Each team turned to a rookie to keep their seasons from spiraling out of control, and those players have delivered.
New Orleans (7-9) got off to a rough start and coach Byron Scott was fired after the team lost six of its first nine. Things got even worse, as Chris Paul(notes) sprained his left ankle in the next game, an 86-78 loss to Portland on Nov. 13.
Despite having to take the court without their two-time All-Star point guard, who is sidelined indefinitely, the Hornets have managed to get their season back on track, thanks to the play of Paul’s replacement.
Collison, a first-round pick out of UCLA, finished with 18 points, eight assists and a career-high seven rebounds in Wednesday’s 102-99 overtime victory over Milwaukee. Collison’s 3-pointer with 7.5 seconds left in the fourth quarter sent the game into overtime and his free throw with 8 seconds left in the extra session gave the Hornets the lead for good.
“Regardless if you’re a rookie or not, it’s about basketball and anybody can make plays at the end of the game,” Collison said. “That rookie label … it really doesn’t matter.”
New Orleans improved to 4-2 since Paul’s injury, with Collison averaging 14.7 points and 6.7 assists.
“Darren has been to Final Fours,” said power forward David West(notes), who had a season-high 27 points against the Bucks. “When it comes to competition and pressure situations, it doesn’t get any tougher than that. We knew he could come in and handle it. We expected this from him.”
Collison may have to shoulder more of the load in this game after guard Peja Stojakovic(notes) was excused from the trip for personal reasons. Stojakovic, who has averaged 11.6 points, may rejoin the team in time for Tuesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
While the Hornets’ success with Collison has been a surprise, Sacramento’s strong start with Evans has also been a shock.
After opening 1-4, the Kings learned leading scorer Kevin Martin(notes) would miss about two months with a fractured left wrist. Things looked bleak, but Sacramento responded by winning six of 10 with Evans leading the way.
Evans, the fourth overall pick from Memphis, had 21 points and eight rebounds in Friday’s 109-96 win over New Jersey. He’s averaging 19.1 points and 5.3 rebounds for the Kings (7-8), who are nearly halfway to their win total from 2008-09, when they went 17-65.
In his second pro game, Evans finished with 22 points in a 97-92 loss to the Hornets on Oct. 30, Sacramento’s fourth straight defeat in the series.
Collison did not play in that game, while Paul scored 13 of New Orleans’ last 17 points to finish with a game-high 31.