Before we get into the details of the pounding the Hornets' received at the hand of the Lakers in their final game of the season tonight, we just want to point out a touching moment that occurred with one minute left in the game.
With the Hornets down by 17, head coach Monty Williams called a 20-second timeout and subbed out his starters. The crowd - which contained more people than you'd think in the midst of such a blowout - then
all stood up in unison and started cheering and chanting "Thank you, Hornets."
It was a touching moment because — after all the turmoil of whether Chris Paul would be traded, whether this team will be moved and the ups and a pretty depressing 47 minutes of basketball — Hornets fans took a moment and recognized just how much this team has accomplished.
As we said in our playoff preview: who would've guessed that this team would even be in the playoffs a year ago? And even when they did make the playoffs, who believed the Hornets even had a chance to win a game, let alone two?
Yet, despite all the troubles this team has faced, the Hornets showed a determination and resolve that we haven't seen in years past and, through that determination — and the occasional brilliance of Paul — they managed to make people believe that they could at least compete with the two-time defending champions.
"Our players exemplify all the good things sports are about," Monty Williams said after the game. "I've been blessed to be around an unbelievable group of players and their families for an entire season. The grind ... can wear you out if you're around knuckleheads. ... This group was exceptional."
You could excuse Williams for being hyperbolic or waxing poetic about his team. But who doesn't feel sad that this group of scrappy and undersized players that, against all odds, made people in New Orleans truly care about NBA basketball?
As Chris Paul mentioned in his post-game press conference, the energy at the New Orleans Arena for the team's three playoff home games was extraordinary. Even when the Hornets weren't playing well — and they didn't play well all of Game 6 — they were loud. Unfortunately, crowd energy doesn't count for points.
Looking back, people will find all kinds of things to pick apart in tonight's loss. There's the questionable refereeing, Chris Paul scoring just four points through three quarters and the Laker's dominance in rebounds. But the simple fact is that the Lakers were just a bigger, more talented team than the Hornets.
New Orleans' only chance in this series was to completely outwork the Lakers in every aspect, work the pick-and-roll to death, shoot lights out and pray that the Lakers forget about their size and talent advantage and fold (which isn't something they usually do). None of that happened in Game 6.
The Hornets were hell bent on making things as hard as possible for Kobe and Co., and it didn't result in pretty basketball (neither team reached 50 points until midway through the third quarter). But the Hornets also didn't make anything easier for themselves. Chris Paul was all but absent in the first half (Kobe later said Paul "was tired", though he also said "that little sucker is tough"). And with Paul scoring just two points on two shots the rest of the team seemed lost without him and the Hornets managed just 34 points at the half.
Despite the crowd's urging, the Hornets just did not seem up to the task all game. The most poignant moment being a particularly egregious sequence where Ron Artest absolutely mugged Chris Paul on an inbound pass and then put in an easy layup (sending the crowd into a rage) and then Artest (cleanly) blocked a Jason Smith shot down the court. When Smith ran back to foul Kobe Bryant, a minor scuffle ensued and the refs determined Smith's foul was a flagrant-two (it definitely wasn't) sending the crowd into a fervor at the end of the third quarter.
But what could have been a spark to ignite the Hornets in the final frame turned out to be a whimper. The Lakers — with the secondary lineup on the floor — expanded their lead from 12 to 20 points with just over seven minutes remaining. At that point a small but noticeable number of fans started to make their way to the exits and it became obvious that the Hornets had run out of whatever it was that fueled their two wins in this series.
And yet despite the fact that the Hornets' season was obviously over, a significant portion of the crowd gutted out the loss until the bitter end. Afterward, Paul praised the energy the fans brought to the New Orleans Arena for every game this series.
"The energy is something I hope we can sustain," he said with a slight chuckle. "It's something we need not only for the playoffs but for the regular season."
It was a not-so-subtle hint to Hornets fans that this team will need them to show up again next season. Considering how well this team did with so many limitations, it's not out of the realm of possibility that this team could stay relevant in New Orleans through the summer and into next season.
Of course, there are too many questions that remain to be answers — who, if anyone, will buy the team? Can Williams and GM Dell Demps fill the team's gaps with talent in the off-season? Will the return of the NFL mean the stands at the Arena will be half-empty until January? — but those are for another day.
Right now, let's all just look back on how amazing this season actually was and hope that New Orleans and the Hornets have even better ones in their future.
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