The New Orleans Hornets came into tonight's game against the Mavericks two days after Dallas handed the Bees their first loss of the season. The Hornets had a chance to show the league that they weren't some fluke and show their mettle against a division opponent.
Then the came out flat and gave up 31 points in the first quarter. It wasn't the best start the Hornets have had all season and, if this were last season, you could have all but written the game off.
But this isn't last season and the Hornets showed the fight and determination that got them within a game of the Western Conference Finals not so long ago. The result: the Hornets began the second half on a 27-7 run and held on for a 99-97 victory thanks to a slew of key defensive plays.
"Well, we had a few choice words in the locker room at halftime," Coach Monty Williams said of how his team overcame their sluggish first half. "I thought that the halftime was a different halftime than we have had before, and I can't say enough about how our team responded tonight."
The Hornets responded how they have all season: by leaning on their defense. They still haven't given up more than 100 points in a game, New Orleans forced 15 Dallas turnovers and turned them into 23 points and the Hornets also dominated the paint, keeping Dallas' forwards in check and outscoring the Mavs 40-24 near the rim.
But in game that came down to just a few plays, no play was more important than David West's steal on Dirk Nowitzki in the closing seconds. Well, maybe the steal he had two plays later after he missed his first free throw and made the second to give the Hornets a two-point lead with less than two seconds remaining.
"We figured Dirk was going to get the ball," West said. "I knew Emeka [Okafor] was behind me so I was able to be aggressive out ion the perimeter and just got my hands on it when he tried to turn and we came up with a big stop."
In big early-season game, the Hornets got big contributions from their best players. CP3 notched his fourth double-double of the season (20 points, 11 assists); Okafor added his third double-double of the year (13 points, 10 rebounds); and West and guard Marco Belinelli added 17 points each.
Watching CST's pre-game, you would've thought that the Hornets and Mavericks were playing Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals. Williams tried to dispel the talk of "playoff atmosphere" (and with just under 14,000 in attendance, you can't blame him), but certainly Williams knows that these are the types of games you have to win in order to make it to the playoffs.
The Hornets are still at the top of the NBA at 9-1 and, the way they're playing, optimists have no reason to think they can't get close to 15 wins by the end of the month. The reality, though, isn't as simple. The Mavericks have proved that the Hornets aren't perfect and as the season progresses, more and more teams are going to find ways to beat New Orleans. As the schedule gets tougher (the Hornets finish the month with games against Utah, Portland, San Antonio and Oklahoma City), we're really going to see what this team is made of.
Right now, though, the Hornets have passed their first tough test. Now let's see if they can make a habit of it.