NEW ORLEANS — Since signing with the Hornets last season as a free agent, Lance Thomas has played a lot of positions.
“I came here as a four (power forward) and played some five (center), and now I’m at the three (small forward,” he said, unable to hold back a smile.
He has impressed in backup roles with the team. And although coach Monty Williams is not ready to name Thomas the starter at his new position, Thomas likes the position he is in now.
“I’ve competed hard in each position I’ve played in this system,” he said. “That helps my cause to be reliable with each position and give coach to confidence in me to do it.”
Entering tonight’s preseason finale at the Miami Heat, Thomas is coming off a performance in which his contributions were evident, even though the Hornets lost 97-90 to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night at New Orleans Arena.
The starter at small forward, Thomas scored just four points and grabbed two rebounds. However, his presence was undeniable. He defended, was strong running the court, and his energy seemed to have an affect on his teammates.
Two plays in particular illustrated what Thomas brought to the table.
With the Hornets trailing 40-36 with 3:08 remaining in the second quarter, the Rockets got a steal and pushed up court on a fast break. Thomas raced back down court, and after Houston guard Jeremy Lin passed to power forward Greg Smith slicing in for a dunk or layup, Thomas wrapped his hands around the ball and yanked it from Smith out of bounds without fouling. Center Robin Lopez ran to Thomas and gave him a big bear hug in appreciation for his effort.
Then, with 40 seconds left before halftime, and the Hornets clinging to a 45-41 lead, guard Kevin Martin attempted to lob the ball underneath the goal to 7-foot center Omer Asik. Thomas anticipated the play, collapsed into the lane and aggressively fought the ball away from the much bigger player, keeping it alive for the Hornets to start a fast break of their own.
“I felt like I was very active on the defensive end,” Thomas said. “That’s where I’m going to make my mark on this team. I try to blend at the three. I still have to do the things that got me to this level. I still have to bring intangibles when I’m thrust into the starting lineup and just remember my I identity.
“I’m a defender. I compliment our veterans and our better guys on the team, and I just don’t want the level of play to drop when I’m in the game.”
Williams had been trying to get his team to play with the intensity to which he is accustomed when he inserted Thomas into the starting lineup.
“He brings toughness,” Williams said. “He brings a level of edge to our team that we don’t have at that position, and I think it with rub off on (other small forwards Al-Farouq Aminu) and (Xavier Henry).”
Tonight, Thomas knows he has to bring his ‘A’ game defensively. Williams hasn’t said Thomas will start tonight, but he likely will get the chance to play against Heat forward LeBron James, considered the best player in the world.
Thomas went against James during the summer as part of a select team that went against Team USA as it prepared for the Olympic Games, and said he felt he did well.
“I just think I need to be a pest,” Thomas said. “I have to be in his way, making his catches difficult, making it difficult when he tries to drive to the basket. Just try to make him take difficult shots, block him out and play hard.”
Thomas spent his summer doing more than participating with the select team. Thomas, who played small forward early on in high school but power forward at Duke, came to New Orleans and worked on hi skills with Hornets coaches.
“It just really feels good to see all that hard work paying off,” he said.
Thomas isn’t the only Hornet relishing the chance to play against James. Rookie power forward Anthony Davis was a teammate of James’ on the Olympic team, but Davis, more of a low-post player, never got the opportunity to guard James one-on-one like Thomas.
The thought of Davis vs. James all came about when Williams said Davis was quick and adept enough defensively to guard small forwards.
“I’m sure it would be an experience that would make me better,” Davis said of a matchup against James.
“The key would be to use my length to my benefit, close in on him, make him take tough shots.
“But getting that opportunity would be awesome.”
Injured shooting guard Eric Gordon and rookie guard Austin Rivers participated in shooting drills at the end of Thursday’s practice that required hard cuts to get open against an imaginary defender. Both seemed to look good, but Williams said they would not play tonight, opting to be cautious with the season opener Wednesday night.
“I would rather hold Eric out and give him three more practices to get ready,” Williams said.
Gordon has missed the entire preseason and training camp with a sore right knee, and Rivers is day-to-day after spraining his right ankle in a fall during Monday night’s game at the Dallas Mavericks.
After Gordon and Rivers finished the drills, Gordon wrapped his knees in ice and plastic. That didn’t look encouraging to Williams.
“This is like being massaged by a cat,” he said.
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