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Hornets' transformation has them surging in the East

The Hornets are 18-5 since Feb. 1, the best record in the East in that span, behind only the Warriors and Spurs. Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE/Getty Images

It happens so frequently now that Jeremy Lin doesn't even bother wasting the energy to get annoyed by it too much these days.

Still, as the first American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, there are some arenas in which Lin might be better off simply leaving on his game-worn, official No. 7 Charlotte Hornets jersey at all times -- from the moment he gets off the team bus until he returns to it after games.

Otherwise, he's likely to get stopped and carded by some security official.

"It's one of those things where it literally happens everywhere," Lin told ESPN.com after Thursday's practice in Detroit, where the Hornets will play the Pistons on Friday. "At opposing arenas, it happens all the time. Just the other night in Brooklyn, I was trying to leave [Barclays Center] and one of the ladies was like, 'Hey, I need your credentials for you to pass.' And then someone else was like, 'Oh, he's a player. He's good.' I'm used to it by now. It's just part of being Asian in the NBA."

Lin laughed as he relayed the story. It's part of his coping mechanism, but it's also Lin's way of shrugging off distractions and keeping things moving. Times are too good right now for his surging Hornets to allow anyone's silly identification issues to disrupt their momentum.

At this rate, Lin and the Hornets only care to be recognized as a legitimate contender in the East, one as capable as anyone of finishing the season strong and rolling through the conference playoff race.

Just check their credentials.

Sparked by huge come-from-behind victories at Miami and at home over San Antonio in recent days, Charlotte (41-30) enters Friday's game at Detroit (38-34) as the East's hottest team since Feb. 1. The Hornets have gone 18-5 over an eight-week stretch during which only the Golden State Warriors and Spurs have posted better records in the league.

"It feels good, man. We've worked our way all the way back to get to this point. It's been a long road."

Kemba Walker

Charlotte sits sixth in the East, but is among four teams separated in the standings by one game for a shot at the No. 3 seed behind Cleveland and Toronto. The top four seeds host a first-round playoff series, and if the Hornets can secure one of those spots over the final 11 games, it would be a first for them since the NBA franchise returned to Charlotte in 2004.

The Hornets also own another unique distinction as the only team in the league this season to post both losing and winning streaks of at least seven games. But after a turbulent stretch in January, when they returned from a West Coast trip ravaged by injuries and chemistry problems, the Hornets made a key trade to acquire veteran guard Courtney Lee. Charlotte stabilized their playing rotation and received a significant boost from center Al Jefferson's return after a two-month absence to recover from a knee injury.

"We were just talking about it the other day -- at one point, we were like 17-20 and going through that rough stretch with two January trips out west," Lin said. "But I remember us at that point, and we were kind of like, 'Hey, it's got to be now or never. We know what we're capable of ... we really have to lock in now.' And now, we're like at 40 wins."

What transpired was a transformation in which coach Steve Clifford demanded more defensive accountability from a team he had already freed up to play more of an open, up-tempo, 3-point jacking style on the other side of the ball. Essentially, Jefferson's early injury opened the door for the Hornets to chuck their plodding, post-heavy system. The offseason acquisitions of versatile swingman Nicolas Batum and Lin, the trade for Lee and the resurgence of veteran forward Marvin Williams gave Charlotte the interchangeable talent to spread the floor, run and shoot a ton of 3-pointers.

Suddenly, at least schematically, they became a poor man's Warriors.

The Hornets have scored at least 100 points in 10 of their past 13 games and have made 13 or more 3-pointers in 18 games this season, the most behind only the Houston Rockets and Warriors. Charlotte has already set franchise records for 3-pointers made (746) and attempted (2,081).

"It feels good, man," said guard Kemba Walker, who is averaging 22.8 points and shooting 39.1 percent from 3-point range in March. "We've worked our way all the way back to get to this point. It's been a long road. Guys were unhealthy and it was just a really bad losing streak earlier in the season. For us to be back, it's pretty impressive. Bringing in Nic, Jeremy Lamb, Jeremy Lin, just guys who can make plays, it's really important we have guys like that. It just takes so much pressure off myself."

Another key has been balance.

Injuries and attrition have led to Charlotte using more than a dozen different starting lineups, but even that burden has been a bit of a blessing. It's also resulted in 10 different players having led the team at least once in scoring this season, 11 leading a game in rebounding and another seven in assists.

"I'd say our ball movement has been the biggest thing," Clifford said of his team's recent success. "Our ball movement starts when the guys that you are playing through are unselfish. Those guys are willing to make the right play. When your best players move the ball, it becomes contagious."

That unselfish spirit was underscored by Jefferson accepting a role off the bench when he returned from the knee injury to a team that had basically undergone a midseason makeover during his absence. His most productive outing came in last week's win in Miami; Jefferson started the second half because of an injury to Cody Zeller and finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds in 27 minutes. Charlotte's bench scored 38 points, including four clutch free throws from Lin, to secure the 109-106 win.

"I couldn't ask for a better way than how Coach did it, with me coming off the bench trying to get myself in shape and in better rhythm," Jefferson said. "Every game has just been getting better and better. And when it's time for me to step up like I did and play big-time minutes, I was able to do it."

The Hornets have been fairly consistent on offense throughout the season. But tightening the reigns defensively factored into Monday's historic win over the Spurs. Lin scored 15 of his game-high 29 points in the fourth quarter as Charlotte rallied from a 23-point deficit for the 91-88 victory. It was the Hornets' second-largest comeback in franchise history and also the largest lead squandered by the Spurs in Tim Duncan's 19-year career with the team.

With that breakthrough win, the Hornets improved to 27-8 this season when holding opponents below 100 points. It was also the sixth time Charlotte came back to win after trailing by at least 15 points this year. For as much of a splash as the Hornets have made offensively, they still boast a defense that entered the week ranked among the NBA's top 10 teams in points allowed, field goal percentage and steals.

The season has been filled with pivotal moments. Lin points to the overtime win in Orlando on Jan. 22, when Charlotte trailed by as many as 18 points but outscored the Magic 30-15 in the fourth quarter to force overtime. The Hornets are now 5-0 in overtime games this season.

"That's when something, especially late defensively, just clicked," Lin said.

For Lee, the memorable moments were the first-half timeout huddles and halftime tongue-lashing Clifford delivered after they fell behind 30-7 in the second quarter against the Spurs a few days ago.

"As a unit and as a team, we were embarrassed by that," Lee said. "This is our home court and you saw a lot of Spurs fans out there. And we came out there and laid an egg. So we can't do that."

Lin offered the PG-rated version of Clifford's message.

"It's never fun having so many different things challenged about you in the timeout, from your readiness to how much you care to, you know, whether you're afraid of other people, to your manhood," Lin said. "It was all different types of things. The natural response from us was, 'Well forget it, let's go.'"

Batum believes resiliency is the team's best characteristic. The roster is filled with role players who have either been labeled as underachievers, injury-prone or flat-out disappointments in previous career stops. Batum is also among a handful of players in Charlotte headed toward free agency this summer.

"We know we can do something special this year. We know that. So we're just hungry to keep playing and keep winning games."

Nic Batum

But there's no sense in looking behind or ahead when there's a chance to stun the East.

"These are times when you stick together, and that's when you find something special in this team," Batum said. "And that's been huge for us. We know we can do something special this year. We know that. So we're just hungry to keep playing and keep winning games."

These Hornets don't have an identity problem. They know exactly who they are and what they're capable of accomplishing this season.

"At times, it looked bleak and we were struggling," Lin said. "But we always felt, on paper, if we do this right, if we buy in, if guys get healthy and stay healthy, we have a chance ... that we belong in the top tier of the East. From the outside ... no one thought we were going to be any good. Whether we're changing that opinion or not, I don't know. But on the inside, we always felt we could make noise."

Charlotte is making itself heard loud and clear on the court.

Shame on those who still don't recognize Lin just a few steps off it.