By: Clyde Verdin,

One of the best feelings in the NBA is the thrill of opening night, where for at least one day, 30 franchises and more than 500 players and coaches begin the season with hope and optimism. But come June, there are only 15 players, four or five coaches and one organization that gets to hoist the heavy, golden trophy that is given to the winner of the NBA Finals.

And although all 15 players and five coaches for the Hornets have experienced the first emotion, only three know what that final one is like, and only one has felt that feeling twice, D.J. Mbenga. Its a feeling that you cant explain, and something you have to be there to understand, Mbenga said. When you win a championship, thats when you understand the importance of playing 82 games, the extra work you put in, the things you learn as a child about this game, everything.

Heading into the 2011 playoffs, Mbenga had played in 24 playoff games in his career with Dallas and the Lakers, winning back-to-back championships with Los Angeles in 2009 and 2010. It doesnt take long for the center from Zaire to recall his championship memories, noting that being known as a champion isnt the only perk that comes from winning it all.

When people see you they have to give you the respect that youve worked for something that everybody else wants, he said. You know youve accomplished something in your life that if you were to walk away from the game today, no one can take away from you.

As one of the more grizzled veterans on the 2010-11 team, Mbenga has done his part to try to impart the wisdom hes gained from his experiences to his teammates, which starts with unity.

It takes heart, trust and a belief in your teammates and the coaching staff that we are all in this together and working toward the same goal, Mbenga said. I was telling Quincy (Pondexter) that youve got nothing to lose and make sure to give everything you have because once you lose, its over.

Understanding that the team comes first, Mbenga has noted that he changes up his routine once the playoffs start because everyone is looking for that edge that puts them over the top.

Youre playing a team two or three times in the playoffs so they know what youre bringing to the table, so I know that means I need to find something different in my game that will throw that team off, he said.

The final piece to the championship puzzle that remains the same for Mbenga is team defense. With the Hornets having a top five defense for most of the season, he said there needs to be an entirely different approach with the playoffs, knowing that every stop is important.

Everybody sees offense in the playoffs, but defense by far is the most crucial simply because one play could be the difference from you winning a championship or losing the whole thing, Mbenga said.

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