While it wasn’t always pretty, the New Orleans Hornets played like a playoff team when it mattered most. After allowing a season-high 38 first quarter points Wednesday night to Southwest Division rival Houston, the Hornets were able to claw their way back to a 101-93 victory, clinching a playoff berth.
Despite winning only 37 games last season, witnessing the turnover of more than half the roster, playing for a rookie head coach, enduring a turbulent ownership transfer and rumors of relocation and losing key players like Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and David West for large chucks of the season, the Hornets will be going back to the playoffs for the sixth time since relocating to New Orleans.
“Coach [Monty Williams] just kept believing and kept fighting and we’re here,” Chris Paul said after the game.
In what was arguably one of the biggest games of the season, Paul had one of his best games of the season. Paul, who has been quietly criticized this season by the local media for a perceived lack of aggressiveness, reasserted his all-world status by stuffing the stat sheet with near triple-double of 28 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds.
“In the first quarter we looked like the bad news bears, and in the final three we showed up,” Paul said after the game, deflecting answers away from himself and towards the team.”It’s been our philosophy all season to defend, run and rebound and that’s what we did.”
No Hornet embodied this defend-run-rebound mantra more than Trevor Ariza, who also may have logged his best game of the season with 19 points, 6 steals and 5 rebounds.
“We’re a team that fights, scratches and claws in practice every day, so it was no different,” Ariza said after the game. “They were hot, and when players and teams get hot sometimes there’s not a lot you can do about it. It’s the NBA, everybody can score. So we just had to stay even and keep fighting.”
As the Hornets only major contributor with championship experience (fellow former Laker DJ Mbenga is also on the roster), Ariza changed the tenor of the game with his defense on the Rockets arsenal of three-point shooters.
“I just like to win,” the soft-spoken Ariza added. “I just like to win, so I try to do whatever it takes to win.”
The Hornets also received several key contributions from their bench. Jarrett Jack chipped in with 19 points, while reserve forward Jason Smith energized the New Orleans Arena crowd with his tenacity around the basket. The loudest ovation of the night may have come when Smith returned to the court after his nose was on the receiving end of a Brad Miller flagrant foul to knock down two key free throws.
“It’s everybody,” Jack said after the game. “When we struggled and started out slow in the first half I looked at the bench and said we have to pick them up. That doesn’t mean that each of us has to go in there and score 20 points. It’s just a level of support to let those five guys know that you got 10 other guys that’s out here with you, and we’re going to go out and play with a never-say-die attitude.”
Forward Carl Landry, who was acquired in a February trade that sent Marcus Thornton to Sacramento, thinks that the composition of the New Orleans locker room has been a major reason why the team has continued to compete after enduring more than their fair share of adversity.
“I just think it’s the guys in this locker room,” Landry said. “In Sacramento, it was all young guys. The average age of that team was probably 22, 23. This team, we have guys like Chris [Paul], [Jarrett] Jack, Emeka [Okafor]. Trevor [Ariza]’s been to the playoffs several times. They get us together and get us back on one accord so we can make that push to finish the game strong.”
While making the playoffs was more than many expected before the start of the season, Paul is unsurprisingly unsatisfied.
“It’s a good feeling to know that we’re in, but now it’s about staying in,” Paul said. “You hear people saying all the time that you never want to back into the playoffs. We want to go full steam ahead so we have to keep building so that when we get to the playoffs there’s no question about what we’re going to do.”
Paul has been around long enough to know what it takes to win in the playoffs.
“We can celebrate and be happy tonight but tomorrow we have to get back to work because everybody else will be doing the same.”