For the Hornets and their fans, getting to the playoffs was an accomplishment in and of itself this season. Coming off of last season's very difficult season and through the in-season struggles the team faced this year, it seemed refreshing that it was going to result in some extra basketball for New Orleans. Not only would it be good for the fans, but a handful of players on the team had never played in a postseason game and this would serve as good experience moving forward for what still is a relatively young team. Things seemed to be bleak, though, once the Hornets draw in the first round was the two time defending NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers. As has been well documented, the Lakers swept the regular season series with the Hornets and their imposing size, which featured two seven footers in the starting lineup, represented an imposing challenge for the undersized Hornets, who were already without leading scorer David West and whose best player clocked in at a generous 6 feet. In addition to those seven footers, the Lakers also put out one of the best to ever play the game in Kobe Bryant. When the series started on Sunday April 17th, 2011, it was deemed successful if the Hornets could just play hard against the Lakers. In game one, at the Staples Center, the team did more than play hard as they successfully challenged the Lakers. And that moment comes in at number four on our list today.
The Hornets, Trail Blazers and Grizzlies were all in a battle for the sixth to eighth seeds going into the final week of the regular season. All three teams seemed to be avoiding the Lakers. The Hornets, though, were the only one of the three teams to play their starters for the rest of the season and go out with the intention of winning basketball games. The other two teams totally went out of their way to avoid the Lakers and the Hornets were stuck with the draw. But that move of keeping his starters in the game and accepting all challenges seems smart by Head Coach Monty Williams, as it allowed the Hornets to still maintain confidence entering the series. On the outside, Chris Paul was saying all the right things about how the regular season was "just the regular season" and how the postseason would be a different beast. People dismissed his comments. Paul and his teammates would sneak across the street to Staples Center, shooting around and eagerly awaiting the moment where the game would get underway. And immediately from the start, the Hornets showed they were to be taken seriously.
Monty Williams entrusted Carl Landry, not necessarily known for his defense, with guarding Pau Gasol one on one for the Hornets as the team was able to swarm on defense everywhere else and keep the Lakers in check. He also put Trevor Ariza on Kobe Bryant one on one and was determined to have everyone meet their assignments and contribute defensively. In a sign of things to come, that worked for Landry as he held Gasol to 8 points and 6 rebounds on 2 for 9 shooting in the game; greatly affecting the outcome. And from the start, Chris Paul flawlessly led the team offensively. He had 6 points and 6 assists at the end of the first quarter, weathering early foul calls on Emeka Okafor that took the Hornets center out of the game.
Okafor's foul troubles opened up the opportunity for reserve center Aaron Gray to get into the game, and Gray responded by using his body to position himself down low as Chris Paul always got the ball in the correct spots to give Gray opportunities around the basket. Gray would eventually finish the game 5 for 5 from the field with 12 points in 20 minutes of action. The Lakers stayed in it, though. Riding a free throw going into the fourth quarter and riding the brilliant play of Kobe Bryant, who would finish the game with 34 points on 13 for 26 shooting, the Hornets remained unable to keep the Lakers down. The Hornets led for, basically, the entire game but the Lakers would always chip away at the lead. Each time they did, the Hornets responded. When the Lakers were able to cut the lead down to 55-54 with 9 minutes left in the third quarter, the crowd started to respond and it looked as if momentum had changed. When the Hornets missed a shot on the next possession and the Lakers rebounded the ball to possibly take the lead, it looked even worse. But Chris Paul would steal the ball from Kobe Bryant before Kobe even started the offense for the Lakers, and as the Lakers immediately collapsed to protect the rim, they left Paul alone at the three point line as he calmly drilled a three to put the Hornets back up by 4. The Hornets would not lead by more than 6 for the rest of the 3rd quarter, though, as they entered the 4th only up by 1 point.
After two free throws by Jason Smith put the Hornets up 86-78 with 8:04 remaining in the 4th quarter, the Lakers responded by cutting the lead down to 3 off of a Kobe Bryant shot behind the arc cut it to 88-85 with 6:35 left. The Hornets would continue to keep the Lakers at bay and were able to respond to every shot thrown by the Lakers, but a Ron Artest three pointer cut the lead down to 94-90 with 3:45 left and the Hornets turned to their star. Chris Paul responded and made seven free throws and two jump shots, helping the Hornets down the stretch to a 106-94 lead on his last jumper and an eventual 109-100 victory for the Hornets.
The Hornets had a monster game from Chris Paul, who finished with 33 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists on 11 for 18 shooting. They also collectively tied an NBA Playoff Record with only 3 turnovers for the entire game. But it was more than just Paul. Outside of Aaron Gray, other players contributed including Willie Green (who went 4 for 7 from the field for 8 points), Jarrett Jack (15 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds on 5 for 6 shooting), Carl Landry (17 points on 6 for 13 shooting) and Marco Belinelli's 10 points on 9 shots all helped contribute to the Hornets victory. It was a true team effort offensively and defensively that let the Lakers know that the Hornets were not to be underestimated. The Hornets would eventually lose the series in six games, but in that Game One they announced to the world that they were still a team to be reckoned with. And Chris Paul announced to the world why he still is the best point guard in the league. And for that, this game receives the number 4 moment on the top ten list for this season.