To paraphrase a much-used saying: teams are never as bad as they seem when they're at their lowest, nor are they as good as people think when they're at their best. The Hornets have seen both sides of the equation, first with their stunning 11-game winning streak to start the season and then when they dropped 9-of-12 games from mid-November to December.
With a hard, but convincing, 93-86 win over the Atlanta Hawks, the Hornets have now won four of their last six, including two in a row. New Orleans smothered Atlanta all night long, with the Hawks shooting just 39.7 percent for the game and managing only 31 points in the second half. It was a gritty, defensive win, and it showed just how good the Hornets can be.
"That's who we are," coach Monty Williams said. "It's something we do every day. Coach Mike Malone always talks about our defensive coverages."
The Hornets, at their best, are a tough-minded defensive team. Tonight, they forced 14 turnovers, notched 35 defensive rebounds and limited Atlanta to just 22 points in the paint. With the Hawks sporting an All-Star front court made up of Josh Smith and Al Horford, that last accomplishment was surely no easy task.
On the flip side, the Hornets found a way to impose their will offensively. Chris Paul, who's been surrounded by talk about whether or not he's being as aggressive or effective as he has been in the past, finished the first half with just four points. After discussing adjustments to Atlanta's pick-and-roll defense with Williams, Paul came out and notched 18 points in the second half, leading the Hornets as they pulled the game away.
It wasn't and overpowering offensive performance as much as it was just efficient. Minus Marco Bellinelli (who finished 0-for-6 shooting), the Hornets starters combined for 66 points on 57 percent shooting. Emeka Okafor and the much-maligned Trevor Ariza contributed with double-doubles, finishing with 15 and 10 rebounds, respectively.
"You do not think of small forwards rebounding the ball," Williams said of Ariza. "But Trevor's a guy who gets a lot of sky rebounds and you see him come out of nowhere."
That is all just a very long way of saying that the Hornets played very well. Most importantly, it was on a night that they hit a considerable rough patch. Those same Hornets starters that ended up performing so well failed to score a point for over a quarter's worth of time in the first half. Their momentum from the blowout win over the Nets on Wednesday was seemingly lost after the holiday weekend, but they were able to wrestle it back.
"We just got aggressive," Paul said of the team's second half surge. "In that first half we were not aggressive offensively or defensively. In that second half, D. West got going a little bit, we got stops, our defense created the offense."
The Hornets seem like a good team stuck between nights where they are very good and sometimes not good at all. After a few quality wins, we've started to see the team that we all marveled at in the beginning of the season. Just in time, too. After traveling to Minnesota tomorrow night (the Hornets, by the way, are a pitiful 5-9 on the road), New Orleans faces the defending NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers at home on Wednesday.
After two straight wins, the Hornets must show they can overcome their road woes and maintain their home court prowess against one of the best teams in the league. Being able to win games like those is what separates the good teams from the great ones. We're about to find out which one the Hornets are.
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