For teams like the Detroit Pistons and the Los Angeles Lakers, winning four games out of six isn't anything special. In fact, because the two teams are so used to success, that kind of stretch may even constitute a slump.
However, there are a lot of smiles among the Charlotte Hornets these days because the team has put together four wins in their last six contests. And in Monday's 97-83 triumph over the New Jersey Nets, the Hornets continued to show more improvement - and more grins.``We are playing more aggressively now,' said Armon Gilliam, who scored 28 points. ``We have a better feel for each other and Gene's (coach Littles) system is working for us now. I feel like I'm on top of my game.'
It's hard to put a finger on just one or two reasons for Charlotte's late-season surge; it's more of a combination of factors. But perhaps the most impressive aspect was the confidence they showed in Monday's victory. Once they seized the game by the throat, the Hornets didn't let go, and though New Jersey wasn't capable of mounting a good strong run at them, the look in the eyes of the Charlotte players indicated that they would have been ready to answer such a challenge.
The Hornets started quickly against the Nets, racing to a 10-4 lead. But after that opening run, Charlotte went cold and didn't thaw out until the closing moments of the first quarter. The Nets capitalized instantly, getting 13 first-quarter points from veteran Purvis Short and building a 23-13 lead.
However, the Nets are one of the league's worst shooting teams, and for the rest of the game, they didn't do anything to hurt that standing. And while New Jersey - with the exception of Short - was finding difficulty getting anything to go in the bucket, the Hornets began to work their way back into it.
After cutting the lead to 25-21 at the end of the first quarter, Gilliam and backup point guard Micheal Williams took charge.
Williams sparked the team on both ends of the court, getting three steals defensively and feeding the ball almost exclusively to Gilliam on offense. A three-point play by Gilliam gave Charlotte the lead for good at 32-31 and moments later, Gilliam converted back-to-back three-point plays which gave the Hornets an eight-point lead at 40-32. Williams, who scored 12 points on the night, hit two jumpers before the close of the half to give Charlotte a good working margin at the break.
``He's a fine player,' Littles said of Williams. ``He's a little like (Randolph) Keys in that he's been in some tough situations. At Detroit, he was behind Isiah and Dumars, so nobody's going to play there. Then in Phoenix, it was the same thing.
``But then he comes here, and we've got Muggsy and Michael Holton and he's got a chance to play. Tonight, he came in and picked us up when we needed it. He's taken advantage of his chance.'
In the third quarter, the Hornets put the game away very methodically, using one good spurt to finish the Nets off. After a pair of Dennis Hopson free throws cut the lead to 55-50, Kelly Tripucka, who had a nice all-around performance, scored six of Charlotte's next eight points to make it 63-52. Another layup by Gilliam and a 3-pointer by Dell Curry built the lead to 68-55.
From there, New Jersey was done. The Nets did get to within 78-70 early in the final period, but with a chance to cut the lead to six, the Nets helped slit their own throats by coming up empty on four straight trips down the floor. This time, it was Curry that nailed seven big points into the New Jersey coffin, putting the finishing touches on Charlotte's latest win.
``It was a good win for us,' Littles said. ``It was just one of those nights where they didn't want it and we wanted it a little more.
``Sometimes, I think we play to the level of competition. Against Phoenix and LA, we played real well because we had to. Tonight we did the same thing, but it worked the other way. It was a team a lot like us. They had 15 wins coming in and we had 13. Now, we have 14.'
And if that total keeps rising, the smiles will keep on coming.