BOSTON -- The locker room door was closed but it wasn't hard to hear the good times being had inside. It was the sound of a team that had accomplished something meaningful and wouldn't have been out of place in any high school or college arena. Monty Williams -- the Hornets' stoic and implacable coach -- appeared from his office across the hall and pumped his fist as he entered the room and his players burst into cheers.
Over the course of 82 games, you have to take those small victories where you can find them and for the suddenly resurgent Hornets -- winners of six of eight after Saturday's 116-112 defeat to the Warriors -- this was important. Their 90-78 win over the Celtics was the second night of a back-to-back that also included a resounding win over the Sixers the night before and was accomplished without Eric Gordon, who rested his surgically-repaired knee.
"I told the guys this is not an easy place to win," veteran Roger Mason told me. "We're not complacent. We're realistic with where we are. We've got a lot of work to do."
The Hornets are very young. The 32-year-old Mason is the only player on the roster in his 30s and the starting lineup ranges from 19-year-old rookie Anthony Davis to 26-year-old Greivis Vasquez. Players like Robin Lopez and Al Farouq-Aminu are getting the first major minutes of their career and even Gordon is only 24 years old.
"I'm sure there's some confidence there," Williams said. "But if you look at our record, we're in no position to laud or to be happy about a couple of wins. We've got a lot of work to do. I'm more concerned about our next practice, how our guys prepare and come focused to our next practice. That'll tell me a lot about our growth. If we come in and think that we've arrived and achieved something greater than we have, than we haven't grown the way I think we have."
There is major work to do. The Hornets offense has been mediocre at best and their defense had been abysmal. It's been that defense that has keyed their revival. In January, they have given up just 101.3 points per 100 possessions, a massive improvement from earlier in the season.
A good part of the Hornets success can also be traced to Gordon's return from knee surgery. The guard signed a max offer from Phoenix; New Orleans matched. The team has been patient throughout his rehab and now in his return. Gordon's shooting stroke hasn't fully come around yet, but he's brought order to the lineup and helped put players in roles better suited for the respective talents.
"We're a fully healthy team now," Vasquez said. "Guys fully understand their roles. We're playing with confidence. We're not thinking too much. We're still going to make mistakes. We're a young team. When you have a young team you're going to make mistakes regardless, so we're playing through those mistakes and we're playing hard."
It's such a simple thing to play hard and yet the Hornets have taken on the personality of their coach, who demands effort and responsibility.
"The best weapon for us is just to play with energy," Vasquez said. "When we play with energy we're a good team because some teams really sleep on us. Oh, they're rookies, they're young. We're in this process to be good and we're going to be not only good we're going to be great. But it takes time."
The key figure in all of this is Davis, the top pick in the draft. Slowed early by injuries including a concussion, Davis ceded ground early to Damian Lillard in the Rookie of The Year race, but he's making a strong case for himself. Look beyond his 13 points and 8 rebounds and note his 50 percent shooting with a PER over 20. His defense, which was so dominant at Kentucky, will take time to develop but there's no doubt that he's a presence.
The Hornets have been able to pair him with Lopez, who has been a pleasant surprise and become a legitimate starting center. Vasquez has been a revelation as pick-and-roll point guard, averaging 14 points and 9 assists. Williams has also enjoyed the luxury of using Ryan Anderson off the bench as a scoring sixth man.
With Gordon and Anderson locked into long-term deals and a little over $40 million in committed salaries next season, the Hornets are well-positioned to continue developing with the core already in place. "It's just a matter of time, brother," Vasquez said. "Just a matter of time."
KG AND JOAKIM, A LOVE STORY
On Friday night, Kevin Garnett and Joakim Noah pushed, shoved, poked, elbowed and cursed each other out all in the name of gaining an edge. So, a typical Friday night for both of them in other words. If you watch closely, you'll notice they do many of the same things off the ball that drive various opponents crazy.
Garnett, of course, is a Hall of Fame player with a diverse offensive game that Noah will never match, which is one of the reasons why Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau -- who worked with KG in Boston as an assistant coach -- wanted no part of comparing them pregame. There was one other person in the arena who has been on both sides of the fray and he had no problem going there.
"I would love to see those two guys with that much energy play together," Brian Scalabrine told me. "It would be crazy in practice. It would be crazy on the bench during games and in timeouts how they would just raise each other's level. That's what I really respect those two guys. I know they've got the friction, but they would love each other as teammates."
Sure enough, after the game Noah told reporters about the latest chapter.
"Just playing sound defense, just contesting his shots," Noah said. "He's a helluva competitor. He's always on some bullshit."
Said bullshit includes the following, according to Noah: "Just trying to throw elbows, cheap shots, just trying to get you off your game. But he's a vet. He's been doing this a long time but it's alright."
Asked if they would ever be cool, Noah said no because both players want to win so badly, which is exactly why Scalabrine believes that there is grudging respect.
"I think so," Scal said. "I know Jo does. I think Kevin respects Jo's game for what he can do. Kevin's extremely intelligent. Extremely intelligent. He knows what Joakim can do and I think vice versa. Joakim is also extremely intelligent. There is a mutual respect there."
What stood out for Scalabrine when he went to Chicago was a similar trait he saw in KG.
"He really and truly cares about winning," Scalabrine said. "Sometimes you get guys that aren't really about that. There are very few guys like that in the NBA. I wish there were more."
For the record, Garnett mentioned Noah as a deserving All-Star before the game and Noah said he regretted some of the comments he made earlier in his career saying that he should have kept things on the court. So maybe peace in our time can be achieved.
THE WHITE MAMBA TAKES THE MIC
Speaking of Scal, I caught up with Mike Gorman, the Celtics' legendary play-by-play man who has been on the call for more than 30 years, for his take on Scalabrine as a broadcaster.
"He's a natural," Gorman said. "He just knows the game so much more than people ever dreamed he did. He comes prepared every day. He approached basketball as a student of the game and he approaches broadcasting pretty much the same way, as a student. You make a suggestion to him, he implements it right away and he comes back to you and says, ‘What did you think, did I do it the right way?' He's really receptive to getting better and I think he's got a chance to be real good."
Gorman has been especially impressed with Scalabrine's approach to the job.
"He works really hard," Gorman said. "He comes to our meetings prepared. His notes are highlighted. He's been up since seven o'clock in the morning reading the papers. He really wants to be good at this. You can tell. He was a guy who is good (as a player), but by NBA standards was right on the edge. He was able to get across that edge because he outworked everybody. He out-studied everybody. A bunch of guys wanted him as an assistant coach because he's so good at the Xs and Os and working out players. I think he's got a chance to be really good. I hope we can keep him for a while."
Ziller and Prada had their picks for the All-Star teams and now it's my turn. This year more than any other I can remember there are many good, deserving players but few that are obvious locks. I ran down numbers on a half dozen players at every position in both conferences and still had tough choices that could have gone either way. Much of this is truly in the eyes of the beholder.
My picks are not solely based on numbers. I also took into account team success, as well as my own observations both in the arena and on television. However, there was zero consideration given to the absurd notion that a team deserves a certain amount of players based on their record. Enough filibustering, here are the picks:
Irving was the easy pick and he'll be an All-Star fixture for years.
I took Holiday over a number of other point guards and "shooting guards," including Brandon Jennings and Joe Johnson. In an otherwise lost Sixers' season, Holiday has been phenomenal raising his scoring and playmaking numbers while not losing anything on the defensive end. When it comes time to think about Most Improved Player, let's not overlook Holiday. As for the Sixers' lackluster record, where would they be without him?
I had Bosh as a starter. Easy pick there.
Noah has also stood out above the other defensive-minded bigs like Tyson Chandler and Al Horford. His defense and rebounding are a given, but he has also increased his playmaking duties within the Bulls offense as they persevere without Derrick Rose.
Pierce is having an odd season for the Celtics. Despite playing slightly fewer minutes he's actually had an increased role with the C's offensively. There are nights when Pierce struggles in ways that remind you he is 35 years old and has over 39,000 minutes next to his name. And there are others when he's still The Truth. A tough call here, and yes, I took into account the unique roster construction in the East that's heavy on bigs and point guards, but short on wings.
Wild Cards: Brook Lopez and Paul George
OK, I give. I could have gone with Tyson Chandler easily. Same for David West, who has been one of the true unsung players for the Pacers this season. Al Horford has been steady and solid for the Hawks and Josh Smith has been deserving for years.
Any of those players could have made it, but I went with Lopez who has emerged as the best offensive center in the East, averaging 18.6 points per game with a 25.5 PER. Additionally, the Nets were 2-5 without Lopez and 22-11 with him in the lineup.
George has played like a no-doubt-about-it All-Star since December. That doesn't discount his November struggles, but when a player is averaging 19 points and 9 rebounds over a significant amount of the season while playing great perimeter defense it gets your attention.
Both were easy picks. The only consideration was whether to slot Westbrook ahead of Tony Parker, but really who cares?
Again there's a logjam up front. Duncan is the easiest selection and like Bosh I had him as a deserving starter. Lee has been great for the Warriors. Defensive issues aside, he's averaging 20 and 10 a night and doing it more efficiently than LaMarcus Aldridge.
Gasol's numbers don't approach the other players I considered -- Zach Randolph and Aldridge especially -- but his defense has played a huge part in Memphis' success and his passing is as good as it gets from the high post.
Wild Cards: Tony Parker and Steph Curry
Parker is having another underappreciated great season, averaging 19 points and 7 assists with a True Shooting percentage of .582. Curry gets the other nod over some of the deserving frontcourt players thanks to an increase in minutes without a drop in efficiency.
As always, the hard part was leaving off the field that includes the aforementioned Randolph and Aldridge as well as Serge Ibaka and Andrei Kirilenko. You can make a strong case for all of them and are welcome to do so in the comments.