Bradley Handwerger / WWLTV.com
NEW ORLEANS ― Chris Paul juked, stopped and floated in a 5-foot shot with less than three minutes to play in New Orleans’ game against Houston on Wednesday night.
The shot gave the Hornets a late four-point lead and culled Rockets center Chuck Hayes to glare down at the ground and Paul blew by him on the way back to play defense.
Hayes and his teammates had much more to glare about moments later.
Paul and the Hornets are back in the playoffs after a one-year hiatus thanks to a 101-93 win over Houston in the Hornets’ Nest.
With everything the franchise has been through this year – coaching change, management change, ownership change, family deaths for the players, a season-ending injury to David West – making the playoffs is a fairly astonishing accomplishment.
But don’t ask Hornets coach Monty Williams for reflection on the feat. He won’t give it to you.
“We didn’t create these distractions,” Williams said. “Some of this stuff is out of our hands, and our guys from day one just decided to buy in to our system. ... Experienced guys help a rookie coach like me cover up my mistakes this year. As reflecting, I haven’t even coached a full year. So reflecting now would be like kissing your sister. I don’t get much out of that.”
In a way, Wednesday’s game was a mirror of the season.
It was a game of runs.
It was a game of defense.
It was a game in which the Hornets found a way to win in the end.
New Orleans (45-33) gave up38 points to the Rockets (41-38) in the first quarter. It held Houston to 55 in the final three.
The Hornets also gave up eight 3-pointers in the first half and then held Houston to only one in the final 24 minutes.
And New Orleans came through with 10 steals in the final two quarters, helping facilitate an unlikely comeback in a game the Hornets trailed by 17.
“It has been a constant all season long,” Paul said. “The first quarter we looked like the Bad News Bears and the last three quarters we showed up. It has been our philosophy all season to defend. Defend, run and rebound and that’s what we did.”
“We’re a team that fights, scratches and claws in practice every day,” Hornets forward Trevor Ariza said. “It was no different than practice. They were hot. When players are hot, teams are hot. You can’t really do anything about that. It’s the NBA. Everybody can score. You have to stay even and keep fighting.“
In a game of follow the leader, New Orleans finally took after its reluctant leader.
For much of the season, Paul has been living on past accomplishments. He has been lax in forcing opponents to change their games.
That’s all changed. Finally.
“I think the offensive and defensive ends start with me as a point guard,” said Paul, who finished with 28 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. “If I’m soft on defense, the team is going to be that way. I felt like when I picked up my intensity, J Jack and Willie and all that, everybody else followed.”
Now they’re following Paul into the playoffs. It’s the fifth time the Hornets have made their way into the postseason in the nine years since they relocated to New Orleans.
It’s the first time for center Emeka Okafor, shooting guard Marco Belinelli and backup point guard Jarrett Jack. It’s the first for Williams as a head coach and Dell Demps as a general manager.
But there’s more to play for and that’s the message Williams will continue to preach.
“Just like coach said, we cannot exhale, we cannot relax at all,” backup forward Jason Smith said. “That was the first step. We have plenty of things to do to prepare ourselves mentally, physically…. We can’t just relax and be satisfied that we made it to the playoffs. We want to make something happen in the playoffs.”