Hornets an intriguing group moving forward

DALLAS– For some, Saturday’s 99-96 overtime win by the New Orleans Hornets over the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center was more than a bit shocking. Maybe they saw Rick Carlisle’s Mavs as still being not that far removed for their 2011 NBA title and the Hornets as being well, the Hornets, a team that has struggled for the past few years in the Big Easy.

But a funny thing happened on the American Airlines Center floor on January 5 as Hornet fans got to see something they had yet to witness all year, the entire roster healthy and now ready to dig themselves out of the cellar in the Western Conference.

Saturday’s win was only the eighth of the season for Monty Williams’ group and of course, the big story was the first start of the year for Eric Gordon, who struggled for much of the night before draining two huge shots in the extra frame, including a bank shot from the top of the arc with 4.7 seconds left in overtime, forcing a three-point play that was New Orleans’ final margin of victory against the Mavs.

Not only did Gordon fill the role of go-to-guy when the Hornets needed him the most, but Williams also got a stellar showing from athletic big man Al-Farouq Aminu, who had 10 points and 13 rebounds in his first start since Dec. 16 at Portland.

“He has the ability because he played four in college to rebound at a high level for his position. He’s one of the best athletes in the NBA. He got a key rebound for us. But I thought he made other plays tonight,” Williams said of Aminu.

Besides Aminu and Gordon, New Orleans also got 25 points from starting guard Greivis Vasquez who was an impressive 11-of-18 from the field, including 3-of-6 from long range. The Hornets also got 16 from Ryan Anderson and 12 from Jason Smith off the bench.

While there was plenty for the New Orleans’ third-year head coach to be happy about after this big win in Big D, he admits now having the peace of mind in knowing that he has Gordon to take the final shot, a role previously held exclusively by Vasquez, is something he can’t put a price on.

“We haven’t been able to do that this season, get the ball to somebody other than Greivis [Vasquez]. Now we think we have two guys that can make plays down the stretch and other guys who are pretty good at staying in their roles,” Williams said. “They [the Mavericks] were taking Ryan [Anderson] out, so that spaced the floor a little bit for us so Eric [Gordon] was able to make some plays along with Greivis [Vasquez].”

Sure, the Hornets still sit 17 games below .500 and at the bottom of the table in the West, but every member of the roster agrees there is something extra motivating about now having their entire group healthy for the first time this season.

“It’s definitely something we’re excited about. It’s definitely kind of a fresh start for this group,” Anderson said. “Obviously, we had a bunch of different injuries come through. We’ve had a lot of new guys, kind of a lot of excuses. And now we can’t [make excuses] anymore, we have everybody and this is how it’s going to be the rest of the year. So we’re excited to move forward and keep working with this group. Having Eric [Gordon] back is really going to help us a lot.”

Vasquez took his fellow Hornet’s comments a bit further, saying that getting Gordon back signaled the start of a new chapter for him and his teammates. “You’re always happy when your main player is back and I think he’s really going to help us to be a better team and we’re going to help him be a better player,” Vasquez said. “So I think this is actually when our season starts. Jason Smith was out for two weeks. Even Anthony Davis was out for two, so we’ve had a lot of injuries through the season. Now we have a full, healthy team so we’ll see what happens.”

Saturday’s crunch-time performance against the Mavs, a veteran-laden team who knows how to win but hasn’t shown that much this year, is a nice step in the right direction. However, the man pulling the strings with this young group isn’t going to let them get too high after this win and lose focus.

“We’ve just got to build off of this. We’re not going to get happy on the farm but we beat a pretty good team tonight,” Williams said. “For those guys to respond, especially our young guys to be in that situation, I think it can give us something to build upon. We’ve got to play with this kind of energy we had in the second half and in overtime at the start of games and try to sustain it. This was the young group we wanted to go with and see what they could do going forward.”

A big part of having everyone healthy is that the strong chemistry from what has been a tightly-knit room all season can now pay some dividends on the court.

“I’ve always thought we had good chemistry. It’ll be nice to have all our players on the floor and we’ll see what comes of it,” Hornets center Robin Lopez said. “

Vasquez agrees. “I think it’s going to click. I think we’re going to put some wins together. It’s easy to say, so we’ve got to make it happen,” he said. “But I think by Eric being back, he’s going to be able to close games out for us because we’ve already been in games. That’s what he does.”

But even after a big road win in Dallas, the Hornets’ fifth victory away from home this season, Williams knows the work is far from over if his team is to climb out of the cellar and maybe become a factor in the West race the rest of the year.

“We try not to look past anything but the next quarter we have to play. With a young team, we try not to skip steps so to speak,” Williams said. “When you have a young team, it’s like raising my kids. I’m not talking to my kids about PhDs. I’m talking to them about what they’ve got to do the next day in school. With this group, it’s the same way. We have such a young team mentally that we try to compartmentalize and keep those guys thinking about the next quarter that we have to play.”