Why the Hornets Can Win in the Playoffs
By: Jim Eichenhofer,, @Jim_Eichenhofer

April 14, 2011

If youre a New Orleans Hornets fan, by now youve probably been bombarded with reasons for why some expect your favorite team to be quickly eliminated from the Western Conference playoffs. Skepticism and doubt are nothing new to the 2010-11 Hornets, who were projected to miss the postseason by the vast majority of objective analysts back in the fall.

In one preview show, when NBA TVs Kevin McHale called New Orleans a sleeper team, he was nearly laughed off the studio set by his fellow commentators. In another example, among ESPN.coms 10 analysts who participated in that websites 2010-11 season predictions feature, only two picked New Orleans to reach the playoffs and both had the Hornets squeaking in as the eighth seed (kudos to Chris Broussard and Chad Ford for nearly nailing NOLAs exact conference finish). It wouldnt be fair to single out, though, because their 2-of-10 playoff prediction rate may actually have been more optimistic than many media outlets.

Ultimately the Hornets proved to be one of the leagues most improved teams, winning nine more games than they had during an injury-ravaged 2009-10 season. In fairness to basketball prognosticators, health is virtually impossible to predict. That undoubtedly was one factor that caused some to view the Hornets as the 37-win team they were last winter, instead of the 56- and 49-win clubs that made the playoffs in 2008 and 2009.

Regardless of where the level of doubt was about the Hornets throughout the regular season, it increased exponentially on March 24, when two-time All-Star power forward David West sustained a torn ACL in his left knee. West was ruled out for the season, meaning the Hornets playoff run would take place without the services of their leading scorer and second-leading rebounder.

But if youre an avid fan of this team, youre probably well-versed in all of this already. Many are talking about why the Hornets cant win in the playoffs, but what are some of the reasons for why they CAN advance in the postseason? Glad you asked.

When Monty Williams took over as Hornets head coach last summer, one of his first orders of business was to instill a defense-first mentality. From Day 1 of training camp, the word defense was uttered constantly by the team, to the point where players seemed to talk about how important that end of the floor was in every interview, sometimes even when that wasnt among the questions being asked.

Williams daily emphasis on defense yielded excellent results, with the Hornets jumping from 21st in the NBA in defensive efficiency all the way to 10th (it was actually seventh prior to Wednesdays loss at Dallas). A significant payoff of the improvement was that even when the offense sputtered and their shots werent falling, the Hornets almost always seemed to give themselves a chance to win in the fourth quarter.

As long as we defend, were going to be in games, Chris Paul said.

Success against elite foes.
The Hornets were one of few NBA teams to not lose a season series to either the Spurs or Mavericks, beating those quality Texas clubs twice apiece. NOLA swept the Magic and Hawks, and posted one of their most eye-opening victories all season Dec. 31 in Boston.

Although the Hornets did not defeat some of the bottom-level NBA teams as consistently as they probably wouldve liked, they put together a number of impressive wins. If you add up New Orleans record while facing the top five seeds of each conference, it went 13-16 (to use one comparison, Miami was 11-14 against the same group). The Hornets defeated every Western Conference playoff qualifier at least once except, of course, their Round 1 opponent. New Orleans went 12-11 vs. the other six West postseason teams.

Ability to go on a hot streak.
People often say that the teams that succeed in the playoffs arent necessarily the best ones, but the ones who get hot at the right time. Well, few clubs were more streaky and prone to riding momentum in 2010-11 than the Hornets. New Orleans opened the season with a franchise-record eight straight wins, and later tied a team mark with 10 victories in a row in January.

We know we can run off a string of games, whether it be eight in a row or 10 in a row, Williams said in March. We know were capable. Everyone in the league cant say that. We know we can hold teams below 90 points. Everyone in the league cant say that. We (had) two All-Stars. We have to draw off that.

Which leads us to

A difference-maker at point guard.
One of the aforementioned All-Stars Williams was referring to is West, who obviously will not impact the postseason. But Wests longtime sidekick, Paul, is making a return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. In his return from offseason knee surgery after a torn meniscus injury, the sixth-year NBA veteran hasnt been as consistent as in previous years, but hes provided multiple glimpses of vintage CP3. In mid-March, Paul put together a three-game stretch in which he averaged 28.3 points, 11.3 assists and 5.0 steals. Pauls ability to score or dish off to open teammates makes it difficult for opponents to game-plan against him.

If youre thinking, instead of what you do naturally, youre not playing good defense, Williams said. Players like Chris make you think on the floor. If youre thinking against him, youre going to get burned.

Pauls playoff opponents in 2008 and 2009 know the feeling. The 6-footers career postseason averages over 17 games are 21.9 points and 11.0 assists, both higher than his regular season averages of 18.7 and 10.0. In the first two playoff games of his NBA career in 08, Paul made history by notching 30-plus points and 10-plus assists against the Mavericks.

A capable fill-in at power forward.
The knee-jerk reaction by many to Wests season-ending injury was to declare New Orleans season over. But Wests backup, Carl Landry, has proven during his brief NBA career that he can produce big numbers when given big minutes. Instead of seeing a precipitous drop-off in performance at power forward, Landry scored 18 points or more in each of his first five starts. Williams has said hes more concerned about the void Landry leaving the reserve unit created, because the four-year vet has been NOLAs leading scorer with West sidelined.

Landry has also been successful in the postseason, as Williams witnessed first-hand during Landrys most recent trip to the playoffs, in 09.

When I was (an assistant coach) in Portland, Carl was in Houston and we had a playoff battle against them, Williams said. Ill never forget the energy and effort he brought, which basically changed the game for their team. He made it hard on LaMarcus Aldridge to catch the ball and score at all. And he was knocking down shots, dunking the ball, and he had the right kind of energy. When (Landry) became available (in the trade market), I looked back at that. That was my reference point.

A bench thats gotten better.
For a large portion of the season, shooting guard Willie Green was the Hornets most consistent reserve. While Green has continued to produce off the bench including a 31-point eruption vs. Phoenix on April 8 several other Hornets have been larger factors since the All-Star break.

Point guard Jarrett Jack struggled to locate his shooting touch early in his Hornets tenure but has been invaluable lately. Center Aaron Grays best stretch of rebounding and efficient scoring took place over the past few weeks. Power forward Jason Smith has capitalized on an increased role following Wests injury, which vaulted Landry into the starting 4 spot.

Were a ton better, Williams said of his second unit. Because Jarretts found a rhythm, and Carl made us better (prior to becoming a starter). Willies been solid all year. By committee, the bigs, including Aaron and Jason, have given us some physicality and energy. Quincy (Pondexter) has been like most rookies, up and down, but he plays hard. So were better (than early in the season).

Preparation time.
Visit the Alario Center after virtually any Hornets practice and you may see a player watching video with an assistant coach, either of themselves or an upcoming opponent. Williams new coaching staff has emphasized preparation and drilled into the team the importance of not having slippage defensively, even after some long stretches of wins.

That may be one reason why the Hornets won 75 percent of their games this season after they had more than one day off between games, a 12-4 mark that includes two victories over Portland and one apiece vs. Orlando and Atlanta. In the playoffs, there are no back-to-back games and the opponent obviously remains the same for an entire four- to seven-game series.

Paul joked Wednesday that the Hornets coaching staff has had the Hornets so prepared this season that players even know the names of their opponents children. During the playoffs, the Hornets may have enough time to also learn their pets names as well.

Nothing to lose.
Fittingly, in a Hornets season that has been filled with so many twists and turns, they had to wait until after midnight on the final day of the regular season while following the outcome of a West Coast game that went into overtime to learn who theyd face in the first round of the playoffs. New Orleans ended up drawing the two-time defending NBA champion Lakers, whove also reached the NBA Finals three consecutive years.

Its likely no one outside of the Crescent City will give the Hornets a punchers chance of prevailing. A quick check of an poll hours after the matchup was sealed showed that 93 percent of 13,000 votes picked the Lakers to win. Dont expect that to matter to the Hornets, who by now have grown accustomed to the underdog role.

There were a lot of people calling us out, saying oh they wont make the playoffs, Paul said Wednesday, a few hours before learning New Orleans first-round matchup. Weve been through a lot of adversity this season, trades and different things like that. What more can we ask for but an opportunity?

This a whole new season now. That is what I have learned. It doesnt matter if you win 60-something games, as long as you win enough to get in, now is when the fun stuff starts.

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