- Photograph by Jonathan Bachman
- Emeka Okafor slam downs an alley-oop delivered by Chris Paul during the Hornets win over the Heat.
Normally at this early stage of the season, one must preach restraint. It’s very rare for a team’s season to be determined in the first five games — especially when you have 77 to go — but…DAMN.
The Hornets are 5-0, off to the best start in franchise history and they’ve done it by beating a Miami Heat team that everyone believes is the presumptive favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
Yes, the Hornets beat the Heat 96-93 in front of a sellout crowd at the New Orleans Arena. It was a positively exhilarating game in which the Hornets took a big lead early and also held onto that lead for all but nine seconds, but also one in which the Heat kept close enough to make interesting at the end.
So how have the Hornets done it? In the words of Monty Williams: trust.
“We have a sign up in our gym, it says trust,” he said. “You can’t say it and not do it.”
Tonight, the trust was shown when Williams adjusted to the Heat trapping Chris Paul by bringing David West to the top of the key on the pick-and-roll. As Williams explained, this gave the Hornets a playmaker at the top that the Heat had to defend — thus leaving a man open on the wing.
The result? On the Hornets final two possessions of the game, Paul drove the lane, the Heat double-teamed him and Paul found teammates for open looks. First it was Marco Belinelli who drove the lane, was fouled and subsequently made two free throws. The second time, Paul found Trevor Ariza for a wide-open that three put the Hornets up by four and all-but sealed the victory.
Mind you, Ariza and Belinelli combined to shot 8-of-20 from the floor. Also, before hitting that final three that took the roof off of the Arena, Ariza’s last three-point attempted end up “in Chalmette”, as Williams put it.
"The ball came to me, I was open, I shot it, the ball went in," Ariza said, describing that final shot. "Whether it was going in or not going in, it was definitely going up."
Ariza took made a big shot in a big moment for his team. Something the all the Hornets have been doing a lot lately. Really, this is all a roundabout way of saying that the Hornets are most definitely a better team than the Heat at this point in the season. Sure, Miami has their big three (who combined for 63 points) but they had no one else.
After Dywane Wade, Lebron James and Chris Bosh, Miami’s next-leading scorer was Zydrunas Ilgauskas with 10 points. Furthermore, James and Wade combined for 21 of their team’s 24 free-throw attempts. That means the Heat only have two players who can challenge players off the dribble or that can be counted on to drive the lane. That’s not a recipe for success.
Compare that to the Hornets. Emeka Okafor finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds. Chris Paul had 13 points, 19 (!!!) assists and five steals. Ariza and West combined for 28 points while Jason Smith came off the bench and contributed 12 points and six rebounds in just over 24 minutes of play.
What’s worse for the Heat, even with only three players account for close to three-quarters of your offense, there’s no guarantee that one of them to get the ball in the end. With the Heat down by three with less than ten seconds remaining, James brought the ball past half-court, drove the lane and…and…passed it to Eddie House who missed his seventh three pointer of the night (he finished 2-of-10 from the field).
It’s a tale of three players vs. a complete team. Sure, the Hornets bench didn’t play up to the level that they’ve had so far this season (just 21 points from the reserves tonight). But they played solid defense, held onto the lead when they most needed it and scored timely baskets to keep the Heat from making any runs. Note that the Hornets lead hovered between 7 and 11 points for most of the night and they never allowed the Heat to open up the game and run the floor.
Now, with all that said, this was a very tight game and the Hornets could have very easily let it slip away. After their 29-point first quarter, the Hornets were outscored the rest of the game. What separated the two teams tonight was the Hornets resolve and the trust the players and coaching staff have for each other. The Heat, while still potentially a powerhouse team, couldn’t match New Orleans tonight.
Yes, its early. Yes, the Hornets have much to work on (did I mention they had 14 turnovers and were just 4-of-14 from three-point range?). But if you want to get excited about this team and where they’re headed, feel free.
All you can do is hope this isn’t as good as the season gets.