Posted Apr 17 2011 8:48PM
LOS ANGELES -- A little less than two minutes remaining in the biggest game of this Hornets season and what could become their biggest in seasons, plural, and Chris Paul rises for a straight-away jumper from 17 feet. He releases over Derek Fisher. When the ball splashes the net, New Orleans has an eight-point lead at Staples Center and the players on the bench catapult from their seats in celebration.
Monty Williams doesn't flinch.
He sits calm and still. It's the same demeanor when he is standing, either with his arms straight down, nailed to his sides and hips, or hands in pockets while mostly motionless in playoff moments.
"Very calm and collected," Emeka Okafor said. "You have to keep your emotions here."
The New Orleans center waved his extended right hand horizontally, straight and slow.
"You have to stay even-keeled and not get rattled," Okafor said. "When the Lakers close in to a two-point lead and it's the fourth quarter and Kobe's going, you can't get rattled. You've got to stay calm."
All of that happened Sunday -- the two-time defending champions rallying from 12 down in the second quarter to two down early in the fourth, and then just a point back, and Kobe Bryant was bound for 18 points the second half, plus on the road as the underdog in a 2-7 matchup. And the Hornets did not get rattled. They did stay calm.
Playing with the aggressiveness and certainty of a heavy favorite that has manhandled the opponent all season, not the one that in reality got swept 4-0 by the Lakers, New Orleans claimed a 109-100 victory in Game 1 because of attitude as much as execution. Because, really, of its coach.
Williams has been the grounding force in a 2010-11 of turbulence, and never was that more meaningful and apparent than Sunday. So much was breaking bad, from wasting opportunities at the line in a close game to the Lakers making the late pressure-packed charge to Okafor managing just 22 minutes because of foul trouble, but the composure never wavered. An entire roster didn't flinch.
"Even though he's a rookie head coach, people forget that he won a championship with San Antonio sitting on the bench already, sitting next to one of the best coaches ever to do it in Gregg Popovich," said Jarrett Jack, the backup point guard who contributed 15 points while making five of six shots and five assists without a turnover. "He's been to the mountaintop. This situation isn't foreign for him at all. Coach has always been poised. He never gets rattled. When we look to him to see that he's not rattled, I think it helps calm us down as well."
And not just a rookie coach. A rookie coach working for a rookie general manager and, though it probably doesn't matter in the moment, rookie owner after the league bought the team in a unique arrangement. A rookie coach who was greeted on Day 1 of training camp by questions about the future of star point guard Paul in New Orleans, who later got the uncertainty about the future of the entire franchise in New Orleans, who later had the blow of losing leading scorer David West to a season-ending knee injury.
By Sunday morning, the Lakers and their supposed size advantage didn't feel so imposing. The season has been a hailstorm of issues. The return of Andrew Bynum just in time to stare down at the Hornets is going to freak him out?
"The thing that I've told them for the past three or four weeks is to try to keep everything the same," Williams said. "I think it makes the playoffs more fun. We've had pressure for the past 25 games, and I've told our guys we're used to it. We're used to being the underdog. We're used to being counted out. We talked about five months ago (about) playing and living in the uncomfortable, and this is an uncomfortable position. We're used to it. So I share the same sentiment with all those guys."
Destined to get overrun inside no matter what, center Okafor played just 22 minutes because of foul trouble... and the Hornets still outscored the Lakers in the paint 52-34, partly because it was one of the dozens of areas Paul struck from en route to 33 points and 14 assists of brilliance and partly because the New Orleans bigs were unfazed by the predictions of their demise. Aaron Gray was better than Pau Gasol.
Someone's living in the uncomfortable heading to Game 2 on Wednesday, all right. But it isn't the Hornets.
"A lot of these guys haven't been in this position before," said Trevor Ariza, the New Orleans small forward who won a ring as a Laker in 2009. "When they see that the head coach is calm, that kind of trickles down to everyone else."
All the way down to a winning locker room Sunday that was happy but not bursting in celebration over one upset victory. The Hornets were wonderfully grounded, understanding it was a nice moment but no real accomplishment in the grand scheme of going for an entire series win. They were focused and calm.
They were Monty Williams.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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