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THIS SEASON the Hornets have been hailed as one of the NBA's model franchises, combining outsized success with a bargain-basement payroll ($66.1 million, 19th in the NBA), thanks mainly to their nucleus of young stars (point guard Chris Paul, 22; power forward David West, 27; and center Tyson Chandler, 25). But despite a 56-win regular season—the best in franchise history—and the second seed in the Western Conference, New Orleans opened the playoffs last Saturday as a popular pick to be upset in the first round. Why? Because the Hornets' opponents, the seventh-seeded Mavericks, had a starting lineup with a cumulative 325 games of postseason experience and played in the Finals just two years ago.
None of that seasoning helped Dallas in Game 1, though, as New Orleans overcame a 12-point halftime deficit en route to a 104--92 win. In his playoff debut Paul scored 35 points and handed out 10 assists (while being guarded by 14-year veteran Jason Kidd, who had played in 100 previous postseason games), and West and Chandler combined for 33 points and 23 rebounds in their first playoff games as starters.
Which leads to the question: Is postseason experience really necessary for playoff success? Opinions vary. "Having experience is important," says Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan. "You just can't duplicate the level of intensity that you'll face in the playoffs compared to the regular season." Counters Grizzlies coach Marc Iavaroni, "Experience is overemphasized a little bit. I don't think it's as big a factor in the first round."
The presence on the bench of Byron Scott, who won three championships as a player and has been to the Finals twice as a coach, will help mitigate any of the Hornets' postseason jitters. (In 2002 Scott coached the Nets to the championship round even though the team featured two rookies, Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins, and a second-year player, Kenyon Martin.) Last Saturday, Scott calmly explained to his players in the locker room at halftime that one of the reasons they were trailing was that they weren't getting enough fast-break points. Scott also challenged Paul, who had been held to 11 points in the first half, to "impose his will" on the game. The result: New Orleans pushed the tempo and rang up 64 second-half points, sparked by Paul's 15-point third quarter. "Byron has been there," says Mavericks coach Avery Johnson. "You can really trust what he's selling you."
But here's a secret about the Hornets: They're not quite the neophytes they're made out to be. Ten of the 14 players on the roster have playoff experience. Forward Peja Stojakovic has played in 59 postseason games with the Kings and the Pacers, four times advancing beyond the first round. Regulars Morris Peterson, Bonzi Wells (both swingmen) and guard Jannero Pargo have all also been on teams that have won a postseason series. In fact, of the eight Hornets who played more than seven minutes in Game 1, only Paul and rookie forward Julian Wright were seeing their first playoff action. "We have some guys who have been through this," says Scott. "[But] I think experience is overrated. You play 82 games, that's enough experience. And if you're winning in the regular season, why aren't you going to win in the playoffs?"
Should the Hornets fall in the first round, it will be because the Mavericks found a way to trap Paul more effectively or were able to establish their inside game. It won't be for a lack of experience.
NOW ON SI.COM Playoff news and analysis from Chris Mannix.