By: Jim Eichenhofer,

Less than 24 hours after the New Orleans Hornets clinched their trip to the 2011 postseason by defeating Houston on April 6, a local TV reporter wondered which opponents Marco Belinelli preferred to avoid in the first round of the playoffs. Belinelli may have been the wrong guy to ask.

For one, at that point the fourth-year NBA player wasnt at all preoccupied with the specifics and details of the playoffs. He was just happy to know that hed be appearing in them, after missing out three consecutive springs with previous teams Golden State and Toronto. Furthermore, instead of admitting to fearing facing some of the top Western Conference seeds, Belinelli instead wondered if some teams might not want to play against the defensive-minded Hornets.

Its going to be tough for a team to play against us, the 25-year-old said. We have a tough team, we are aggressive and we play defense.

One of three natives of Italy who currently play in the NBA (the others are Torontos Andrea Bargnani and Denvers Danilo Gallinari), 2010-11 has been Belinellis breakthrough season in the league. After starting only 24 of his 141 NBA games as a member of the Warriors and Raptors, the 6-foot-5 shooting guard made 69 starts in 80 appearances for the Hornets. During the regular season, he was NOLAs most accurate three-point shooter and averaged double-digit scoring for the first time since arriving in the league as a 2007 first-round pick.

For Belinelli, a trade to the Big Easy from Toronto last summer ultimately proved to be a best-case scenario he went from a backup on a team that was clearly in rebuilding mode, to a starter on a playoff-qualifying team.

Its incredible, he said in his accented English, late in the regular season. I came to the team this summer and saw that it was a great team, a great organization and that I had great teammates. I try to make them see my skill.

Its a dream come true. I always dreamed to play with a team like this one. (Making the playoffs) was one of my targets. For me this is the first time being in the playoffs, so Im so happy about that. I cant wait to play one playoff game.

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