David West and Trevor Ariza have been the Hornets most clutch shooters this season
It’s not the fact that it’s the longest current winning streak in the NBA or the longest in franchise history or that it comes mid-season, when games matter more.
It’s not about hitting the attendance benchmark before month’s end with virtually unprecedented back-to-back sellouts. It’s not even about leapfrogging talented teams to obtain the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference.
But for now, the Bees are here, and they’re hot.
The Hornets’ (30-16) nine-game winning streak, capped by last night’s thrilling 91-89 ousting of the Oklahoma City Thunder, is significant simply because it represents the peak of performance this year. The other byproducts are nice, but they’re incidental.
The Hornets shocked the league by starting 8-0 and then negated the shock by losing 60 percent of their next 25 games. It suggested that the impressive debut was a fluke facilitated by easier opposition and early-season jitters and that the Hornets didn’t belong amongst the NBA elite.
In actuality, the Bees’ impeccable start was a taste, a preview, a snapshot of this team’s capacity for accomplishment. It isn’t unrealistic to expect a drop-off, but it is unrealistic to expect a drop-off as drastic as the previous one.
How far can the Hornets make it?
Since losing to the Los Angeles Lakers on January 7, the Hornets have beaten primary playoff contenders in San Antonio, Orlando and Oklahoma City and secondary ones like Atlanta and Denver. They’ve outscored opponents by an average of 11 points per game throughout this stretch while establishing the best defense in the league. Not to mention the team’s strength of schedule, which currently ranks third in the league
The bench has filled out, especially with guards Marcus Thornton and Jarrett Jack answering their team’s call for offensive production off the pine. Willie Green rounds out a now-customary three-guard set and has made consistent defensive and sporadic offensive impacts.
Rookie small forward Quincy Pondexter is showing signs of improvement, and power forward Jason Smith is still solid, which makes the five spot the last remaining second-string question mark. With the trade deadline rapidly approaching, getting another big man has to be a top priority for the Hornets, who have a number of expiring contracts on their payroll.
Defense and bench play characterized the Hornets’ first run, and surprise surprise, the duo is back. And better this time.
Then there are the intangibles. It’s hard to miss the team’s improved offensive identity, maturity and role player solidification, supplanted in better offensive rebounding and second-chance scoring. The Hornets have shown more poise towards games’ ends, whereas previously they struggled to maintain leads and hit key shots late in games.
Still, it’s difficult to imagine a 2010-2011 championship banner hanging from the catwalk of the New Orleans Arena. Until the Hornets find another sizable-yet-viable scoring threat, they’ll unlikely move far beyond their current ranking of 26th in total offense. And this isn’t the NFL, where the “defense wins championships” mantra sometimes holds water.
And while it’s still too early to make definitive playoff predictions (besides stating that the Hornets will make it), it’s clear that the unity of post-Katrina New Orleans is starting to show itself on the court.