Williams: Hornets can't rest on playoff clincher
Everywhere Monty Williams turns now, people want to congratulate him.
Family, friends, fans, his Hornets players, team executives and fellow coaches all want to tell the 39-year-old Williams what a remarkable job he's done in his first season with New Orleans.
After all, he took over a team that missed the postseason last year, that is in an ownership transition, that has 10 new players on the current roster and that wound up losing top power forward David West during the stretch drive of the regular season - and still got to the playoffs.
Some congratulations have to be in order, but Williams would rather not hear them right now.
''We always talk about not messing with the game,'' Williams said after practice on Thursday, one day after the Hornets (45-33) sealed a playoff berth with a comeback victory over Houston. ''To me, in this situation, messing with the game would be to be where we are, clinching, and then going out and playing as if we've arrived.
''We want to go into the playoffs with a certain rhythm and keep our flow,'' Williams continued. ''So that's our thought process right now. How do we keep what we have and try to increase it as far as intensity and focus and making sure we don't lose our rhythm?''
When the Hornets gathered in the locker room after their playoff clinching victory, there was little celebrating. Assistant coach Mike Malone recalled Williams stressing that it would be a shame if, after all they accomplished this season, the Hornets were unceremoniously bounced from the postseason in the first round.
''We didn't make it this far just so we could get our butts kicked in the playoffs,'' Malone said. ''That was basically Monty's message.''
Heading into Thursday night's games, the Hornets held the sixth seed in the Western Conference because they own a tiebreaker with Portland. Memphis (44-34), only a game behind, occupied the eighth and final playoff seed. The Hornets have four regular season games left, starting at home Friday against Phoenix, followed by games Sunday at Memphis, Monday at home against Utah and April 13 at Dallas.
New Orleans would like to hold on to sixth, thereby missing a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers, who've beaten the Hornets in all four meetings this season.
''You hear people say it all the time - you never want to back into the playoffs,'' said Chris Paul, who's carried the Hornets for much of the season with averages of 16.3 points and 9.8 assists. ''At the end of the day, we want to keep winning and stay in the sixth spot.''
The Hornets will be challenged to advance in the playoffs without West, who led the club in scoring with 18.9 points per game to go with an average of 7.6 rebounds before his injury last month. Yet experience has taught several members of the squad that it would be foolish to sell themselves short. Forwards Trevor Ariza and Carl Landry both played for the Rockets in recent seasons when they remained competitive despite key injuries to Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.
Houston coach Rick Adelman agreed that while the loss of a key player over an entire season or more - as has been the case with Yao - can set a franchise back, solid teams can weather such injuries in the short term.
The Hornets ''still have Chris Paul and they have good players who've been in the league,'' Adelman said. ''They all have to step up and do better. You have to have a team that, no matter what happens, you believe that you can go out and you can win.''
Ariza, who has scored 19 points in his last two games - both victories - said the Hornets are ''a team that prides ourself on not making excuses.''
While emphasizing how difficult it is to replace West, Ariza added that ''we've got a lot of other guys on our team that can fill those shoes as well, just as long as we play hard and play together.''
Ariza also suggested that having three regulars - center Emeka Okafor, point guard Jarrett Jack and shooting guard Marco Belinelli - who've never been to the playoffs could work to the Hornets' advantage.
''These guys are hungry,'' Ariza said.
Since West's injury, the Hornets are 4-2 and also won the game in which he got hurt.
''We showed some resolve in a tough situation,'' Williams said. ''It says a lot about Chris, that he can carry a team for stretches, but it also says a lot about the group, how much resolve they have.''