|Hornets seek to prolong feel-good story|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 18 April 2008 00:22|
In this city's lingering disaster-weakened condition, the fans wouldn't show up, the Hornets would have little home advantage and would be lucky to make the playoffs - or so went many predictions.
That made the moment a little sweeter when Hornets owner George Shinn walked onto the court, wearing a pinstriped suit and a black ``Southwest Division Champions'' cap after his team's last home game earlier this week.
``From the day we came back there were so many doubts, fears, from everybody and so many unknowns and so many critics telling us we were stupid and everything else,'' Shinn said after Tuesday night's division-clinching victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.
``It's such a wonderful feeling to see what happened after we just decided to do the right thing. We put together a great team and everybody just bonded. The team bonded together as a unit and the community started bonding to them.''
The critics appeared to be right, early on. Returning from a two-year displacement to Oklahoma city after Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets were last in the league in attendance at times during the first few months of this season. They stumbled in several upset losses at home in November.
But by this week's regular season home finale, the Hornets had sold out 12 of their last 17 games in New Orleans, set a club record for victories with 56 and clinched the 20-year-old franchise's first division crown.
``It's been an incredible ride. This is our first time winning a division title and it couldn't be more fitting than for it to be here,'' Shinn said. ``It's needed. We've been a catalyst to help this city recover and we're going to keep doing everything we can to keep it that way.''
The Hornets, who won only 18 games in their last full season in New Orleans (2004-05), are now in the playoffs for the first time in four years. Two big reasons are guard Chris Paul and forward David West, who became first-time All-Stars during the season, when New Orleans hosted the All-Star game. Paul - averaging 21 points, 11.6 assists and 2.7 steals per game - also emerged as a candidate for the league's Most Valuable Player award.
Tyson Chandler, who had more than 100 dunks on Paul's alley-oop lobs while grabbing nearly 12 rebounds per game, and Peja Stojakovic, with his knack for hitting clutch 3-pointers, also played key roles in numerous victories.
Now Hornets players are the toast of the town, somewhat like the Saints were during their inspiring post-Katrina playoff run in 2006.
``When I first came here, people didn't recognize me,'' Chandler said. ``I was walking the streets freely and people were like, 'Who are you? What are you doing here? How tall are you?' and all those questions. Now, behind tinted windows in my car, people recognize me.
``We understood the opportunity at hand,'' Chandler continued. ``We really came to the city with the intention of helping the city recover, and we kind of accomplished that, definitely this year off the court ... and then what we achieved on the court won the hearts of the fans. It's a great bond and relationship right now.''
The Hornets finished as the second seed in the West, earning home advantage through at least the first two rounds of the playoffs, should they make it that far.
The problem is that they play in the Western Conference, which is sending eight 50-win teams into the postseason. New Orleans (56-26) opens on Saturday night against seventh-seeded Dallas (51-31), a team that split four regular season games with the Hornets, winning the latest clash between them 111-98 on Wednesday night.
New Orleans also lacks playoff experience. Paul has never played in the postseason. West was a rookie reserve the last time the Hornets made it.
Head coach Byron Scott points out that Stojakovic saw plenty of postseason action with the Sacramento Kings earlier this decade. Reserve swingman Bonzi Wells also is no stranger to the playoffs.
``Playoff experience obviously has its positives, but I don't think it is so big that it's going to win or lose us a series,'' Scott said Thursday. ``You've still got to go out there and perform, you've still got to go to out there and execute on both ends of the floor, so I think it's overrated.''
New Orleans - be it the Hornets or the community at large - seems to thrive on being underrated and proving doubters wrong.
This season already has been more of a feel-good story than most saw coming, even if it ends in early round playoff disappointment. Not that Paul and the Hornets see the upcoming chapter on the postseason being a brief one.
``We feel like this is not the end of the story,'' Paul said, wearing his division championship hat after Tuesday's win. ``We don't want to celebrate too much. This is a huge honor but we're not satisfied. ... We've still got a a lot left to write.''