By Nick Peruffo
By recording their sixth consecutive victory Wednesday night in a 103-102 overtime thriller against the Memphis Grizzlies, the New Orleans Hornets continued their steady recent ascent up the Western Conference standings. Since posting a sub-.500 December, the Hornets have won 9 of their last 11 games and are now tied in win column with the third place Dallas Mavericks.
The run has been even more impressive considering that four key New Orleans players – David West, Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza and Marco Belinelli – have been nursing lingering injuries.
Much as in last week’s similar overtime win against Orlando, the story of the game was Marcus Thornton. The Baton Rouge product, who has fallen out of favor this season in Monty Williams rotation, scored all 17 of his points in the fourth quarter and overtime. New Orleans is now 8-1 when Thornton scores in double figures.
“He’s a great offensive player that can score very fast and in a lot of different ways,” Ariza said after the game. “He came in and gave us a big lift.”
Thornton’s contribution to the game didn’t only come by way of points. When he checked into the game for the first time late in the third quarter, he received a conspicuously loud standing ovation from the hometown fans. Whether or not it was directed at Williams, the Hornets took notice. New Orleans closed the third quarter on an 18-3 run that tied the game at 67.
“His energy – everybody sees it,” Paul said. “The standing ovation he got when he came in the game, we feed off that too. He takes his time and lets the game come to him. He’s a spark off that bench and he got me going a little bit too.”
New Orleans mid-game deficit was also nothing new. The Hornets have had to mount significant comebacks in five of their last six victories, three of which have ultimately required overtime.
“I wish we could get it out of our system, waiting until we’re down by 15 until we start playing, but it just shows how much chemistry we have on this team and how much we are together,” Thornton said. “Even though we’re down we’re still battling and trying to win games.”
Paul cites composure and a little bit of luck as key ingredients in New Orleans’ winning close-game recipe.
“We just don’t get rattled,” Paul said. “We’ve been in those situations before and we know how to win. This one right here was a combination of hard play and luck, you have to be honest.”
Though Thornton grabbed much of the spotlight, there was plenty of credit to go around in the locker room after the game. Ariza, despite struggling at times offensively, was key in holding Memphis’ Rudy Gay to only 8 of 23 shooting, as well as coming up with several crucial defensive stops at the end of the game.
“[Ariza’s] presence and defensive intensity is something that goes way beyond the box score,” Paul said. “He guards the best player on the best team every night.”
Also instrumental during New Orleans recent resurgence has been David West, who has emerged as one of the team’s undisputed leaders. West has been putting up All-Star caliber numbers and has recorded three double-doubles over the Hornets six game win streak.
“I always say I couldn’t imagine playing with another guy,” Paul said. “I have the utmost confidence in him. This season, probably more than ever, I have more confidence in him than I do in myself.”
Though clearly pleased with their recent success, the Hornets know that their ultimate goals can’t be achieved in January. Recent history provides a fair warning: after starting out the season at with a league-best 12-1 record, New Orleans played mediocre basketball for two months. Paul knows that the only way to avoid a similar letdown is to focus on what’s in front of you.
“We’ve grown but we still have a lot of work to do. Winning six games in a row is a good accomplishment, but it only gets tougher going to Atlanta and San Antonio back-to-back. Right now Atlanta’s our top priority.”