By Nick Peruffo
David West’s postgame body language Saturday night was nothing new to the mass of New Orleans media surrounding his locker. The seven-year veteran—who is quietly closing in on Hornets franchise records for both total points and minutes played—was his usual understated self, calmly diffusing hyperbolic questions with his easy baritone. To the casual observer, it looked just like every other mid-January postgame interview. Business as usual.
What was interesting, however, is that Saturday’s 96-72 trashing of the West-leading San Antonio Spurs may have been the exclamation point to potentially the franchise’s most significant two-week stretch since their 2008 playoff run. With the controversy surrounding the NBA’s takeover of the team and questions swirling surrounding the long-term viability of New Orleans as a market, the team has strung together an improbable eight game winning streak and established itself as a serious threat in the Western Conference.
West, unsurprisingly, downplayed these notions.
“Obviously we want to feed off some of the things we did well, but at the same time this is just like any other win,” West said after the game. “We’ll celebrate it for a few hours and then move on.”
On a roster with plenty of veteran experience, West’s attitude is not unique.
“We’ll enjoy this one tonight, but we’ll have to get back to work tomorrow and prepare for Oklahoma City,” echoed seventh year reserve swingman Willie Green. “Our guys our committed to doing what the coaches ask us to do, and we’ll prepare hard and get ready for Monday. As long as we play defense we’ll be in every game.”
While their point is well taken, it’s hard not to be impressed with the squad’s recent play. A night after embarrassing the supposed contenders the Hawks 100-59 in Atlanta, they made the resurgent Spurs look old, slow and soft. Though the Hornets players will rightly toe the company line and focus on the next game, they got a ringing endorsement from one of the league’s most respected voices: San Antonio’s Greg Popovich.
“Monty [Williams] and his staff know exactly what kind of system they want to install,” said Popovich, who helped Williams’ coaching career get off the ground back in 2003. “It does not happen instantaneously. They have worked at it all year long through ups and downs and every team has ups and downs. It’s a credit to their character and their players and their staff. They stuck with it and now they are a fantastic defensive team. When you shoot like that on top of it, you are a big time team who can play every night with everybody and that’s what they have become.”
Another sure-fire Hall of Famer agreed with Popovich. When asked if the Hornets were legitimate contenders, Tim Duncan responded: “I imagine so. They are playing the best basketball of anyone in this league for the last 15-to-20 games.”
Perhaps most importantly, the team’s recent win streak means that the Hornets will almost certainly eclipse an attendance clause in their lease agreement with the New Orleans Arena. If the attendance figure hadn’t been met, the team’s potential future owner could decide to opt out of the lease agreement and relocate the franchise.
The atmosphere in the Arena has been improving almost exponentially with each passing victory, with Saturday’s sellout crowd representing the best regular season environment in recent memory.
With the Saints eliminated from the NFL Playoffs early, the Hornets are finally beginning to capture the interest of the decidedly football-centric city.
“We needed this for our crowd,” Chris Paul said after the game. “We feed off our crowd. It felt like a playoff game. That energy, everybody on our team feeds off of that, and it’s a lot of fun.”
In a span of just two weeks, the franchise’s once-dubious long-term outlook now appears considerably brighter. Fortunately for Hornets fans, the team hasn’t seemed to notice.
West, wearing a towel over his shoulders, wears the expression of a boxer sitting in his corner at the end of a promising but early round. All business.
Green, perhaps, summoned up the collective attitude of the locker room most succintly.
“We still have over 40 more games to play,” Green deadpanned. “You can’t get all excited over one game.”
No matter how huge that game might be.