If you told anyone close to the New Orleans Hornets that their squad would be able to top the team with the best offense in the league (Houston) with Anthony Davis and a freshly returned Eric Gordon scoring a mere 11 points combined, they’d say that you were crazy.
The Hornets picked up their third consecutive victory on Wednesday night, a streak that has come entirely at the expense of division opponents. Having beat Dallas, San Antonio and Houston, the expectation would be that New Orleans would have to score a lot of points to get it done, but the difference has been in there defense.
The Hornets have allowed an average of 87 points over the last three contests and have suddenly found an identity on that side of the ball. On Wednesday, the team saw second choice power forward Jason Smith step up as he did against Dallas with double digit scoring and a presence in front of the rim (3 blocks).
In general, New Orleans is a pretty good defensive team, ranking 12th overall in the league in opponent points per game, but holding San Antonio under 90 and the league’s most potent offense in Houston under 80 sounds more like one of the top defenses in the league.
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Since the return of Gordon, the rest of the Hornets have stepped up their effort on the defensive end significantly. As a team they rank 28th in the league in steals at 6.4 per game for the season, but over the last three outings they’re averaging 10 steals per game. Thanks to Gordon’s ability to guard the other team’s best back court player, the rest of the Hornets are able to refocus their time on clogging passing lanes and marking their own man tighter rather worrying constantly about rotations and watching the opposing team’s players infiltrate the paint.
At the end of the day, however, you still have to put points on the board and it’s something the Hornets have been able to count on Gordon to do since he came back. But on Wednesday, Gordon finished with a mere five points and six assists. So it must have been Davis or Ryan Anderson that stepped up for a big scoring night right?
The rookie out of Kentucky would finish the night with a mere six points, while Anderson finished with a goose egg in the points department. So where did the offense come from?
Greivis Vasquez, Jason Smith and Roger Mason Jr. all buried 17 points while the sometimes maligned center Robin Lopez added another 14. That accounts for 65 of the team’s 88 points, showcasing the fact that not only do the Hornets have a key playmaker back in the lineup as we’ve seen in the last two games, but they also have a bench and pieces surrounding their stars to carry the team to victory on any given night despite their poor record.
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The fact is, this is a team with an average age of 24-years old, a coach that had never been a head coach previous to joining the franchise and a group of players who have never really experienced winning, particularly together. To see the Hornets struggle this season was expected, but watching them take the last three games has shown that they have what it takes to compete with the elite and are growing at a steady clip.
Consider that all three of the teams they’ve beat have top ten scoring capability, with the Spurs and Rockets comprising two of the three best offensive teams in the league, and you begin to believe that this team has a promising future. Thanks to Smith, Davis and Lopez, the team is just outside of the top ten in blocks at 5.5 per game and Vasquez is holding tight as the league’s third best passer at 9.1 assists per game.
Granted, at 10-25 it’s tough to see anyone getting excited about the Hornets this season, but the fans came into the campaign knowing that limited expectations were in order for a team with their level of experience being in the midst of a transitional era. But with Gordon’s future locked up and him appearing to be getting back to his best, a second reliable guard in Vasquez and promising talent in the front court in Davis and Anderson in particular, the Hornets aren’t as far away from their envisioned rebuild as their record would indicate and that is something fans can feel good about.