WESTWEGO, La. – Monty Williams sometimes finds himself cutting short celebratory locker room chatter after impressive wins such as the ones New Orleans had over Denver and Orlando this week.
The rookie coach has already seen what a little complacency can do to the current edition of the New Orleans Hornets, and it worries him.
"You know, you beat a team like Orlando, and to me, it's natural to think that you've moved into the upper echelon of teams," Williams said after practice on Thursday, as the Hornets prepared to travel to Houston for a contest against the Rockets on Friday night. "I was the first one to tell the guys that we're not that kind of team. ... To approach that level, we have to have a role player's mentality and we have to have it all the time."
Hornets coaches sensed their team got a little soft after a surprising 11-1 start that included wins over San Antonio, Miami and Dallas. What came next was a 3-9 swoon. The Hornets have been better in their past 15 games, though, winning nine times in that span.
They've been buoyed by defense and rebounding. They've equaled or exceeded 12 of their last 15 opponents in rebounds and held eight of those opponents below 90 points. Meanwhile, four Hornets starters have averaged double-figure scoring during that stretch. David West has averaged 17.9 points, followed by Paul (17.5), Okafor (12.9) and Ariza (10.8).
The surge in wins gave New Orleans (23-16) the sixth-best record in the Western Conference heading into Thursday night's games, and the Hornets play their next four games against teams with losing records: Houston, Toronto, Charlotte and Memphis. There's a clear opportunity to enter the second half of the season firmly in playoff contention, but Williams warns that will only happen if the Hornets don't treat upcoming opponents like losing teams.
"The test for us is winning a game like (the one against Orlando) and then having the same sense of urgency if not more going into these next games," Williams said. "We've done some good things and I'm not going to sit her and front like a fake humility thing ... but I can't allow myself or allow the team to start thinking about anything we've done because it doesn't mean anything."
The Hornets' latest victory on Wednesday was among their most impressive. Orlando came in on a nine-game winning streak during which they'd averaged more than 107 points per game and double-digit victory margins.
The Hornets led throughout the second half, and after blowing a seven-point lead in the final minute, regrouped to win 92-89 in overtime.
It was one of the best defensive performances of the season for New Orleans, which came in already ranked second in the NBA with fewer than 93 points allowed per game. Even with an extra five-minute period, Orlando could not get to 90.
The Magic managed only 39 percent shooting, and New Orleans is now holding opponents to 44.3 percent, which tied for eighth best in that category before Thursday's games.
"Those are really good numbers but it's something we can't be satisfied with because the problem we've had this year is we'll have a really good game like (Wednesday) night and then we'll go to Houston and not defend," said Hornets assistant coach Mike Malone, who Williams brought in to help him improve New Orleans' defense.
Malone previously held the title of defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He and Williams share a similar defense-first approach to coaching, and it has made a difference for the Hornets, who allowed more than 103 points per game last season and missed the playoffs.
"We feel that if we can get teams in a half-court game to play against our set defense, we have a good chance because we have a good defensive system and philosophy in place," Malone said. "A lot of the credit goes to Monty. Since we took over, we preached defense from the first day."