Spurs next for Hornets

Associated Press photo by LM OteroMavericks point guard Darren Collison drives against Hornets point guard Greivis Vasquez during Saturday's game in Dallas.
Associated Press photo by LM OteroMavericks point guard Darren Collison drives against Hornets point guard Greivis Vasquez during Saturday's game in Dallas.

WESTWEGO — New Orleans Hornets point guard Greivis Vasquez couldn’t stop smiling after Sunday’s practice at the Alario Center.

Vasquez has seen the Hornets (8-25) lose many games like Saturday night’s at Dallas, close ones that came down to the end. However, the Hornets were able to win 99-96 on a three-point play by shooting guard Eric Gordon with 4.7 seconds to play in overtime.

Coach Monty Williams was making sure the Hornets’ attention was on the task at hand, however, with the team facing the Southwest Division-leading San Antonio Spurs on Monday at New Orleans Arena.

While the Oklahoma City Thunder, then the Memphis Grizzlies, then the Los Angeles Clippers have been touted as the best team in the Western Conference, the Spurs (27-9) have been quietly consistent and are tied with the Clippers for most victories in the league.

Asked if the Spurs have flown under the NBA’s radar thus far this season, Williams said, “Not in my eyes.”

“The Spurs, as long as they have (power forward/center) Tim (Duncan) and Pop (coach Gregg Popovich), they are going to be a top team in the league,” Williams said. “Their record says it, the numbers say it. They are a really good basketball team, tested, they have experience.

“They can beat anybody in the league; doesn’t matter who it is. You can’t say that about every team. A lot of teams, they don’t match up well with every team. The Spurs match up well with everybody, and that gives them a chance to win the championship.”

The Spurs come into Monday’s game having won eight of their past nine, starting with a 99-94 home win against the Hornets on Dec. 21. It’s that loss, however, and one on opening night 99-95 that has Vasquez thinking the Hornets may be able to win consecutive games for the first time since Nov. 2 versus Utah and Nov. 3 at Chicago.

Both games against San Antonio were close, but Vasquez noted the Hornets didn’t have Gordon, whose return is part of a fully healthy roster for the first time this season.

“We didn’t have a closer,” Vasquez said. “We have a closer now. Now it’s going to be a game.

“In San Antonio, with two minutes left, it was 92-92, and we couldn’t get a bucket, at all. In the first game, (Spurs point guard) Tony (Parker) hit that big 3, and they beat us, too. So, there’ll be a payback
(Monday).”

That may be easier said than done. The Spurs have the third-best road record (13-7), are first in the league in assists per game, second in scoring and third in field goal percentage. And their big three of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili have played fabulously of late.

During the recent seven-game winning streak, which ended with a loss at New York on Thursday, Parker averaged 21.6 points on 55.6
percent shooting, including 45.5 percent on 3s, and 7.7 assists. Duncan averaged 19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.28 blocks, 56.3 percent shooting from the field and 87 percent on free throws. Ginobili was at 14.3 points on 50 percent shooting, including a whopping 54.2 percent on 3s, as well as 5.4 assists.

Vasquez said the Hornets’ roster being at full strength will make it interesting, despite the team’s record.

“Now we’ve got the guys we were supposed to have on the court,” he said. “We’ll see what happens, but it looks good, it feels good. Now we have to get it done.”

Backup center Jason Smith, who returned last week, helped bolster the Hornets in the win at Dallas with 12 points and seven rebounds. Al-Farouq Aminu, in the starting lineup for the first time since Dec. 7, had 10 points, a game-high 13 rebounds, three assists, three steals and one blocked shot.

“I thought Jason’s play down the stretch (at Dallas) was really pivotal for us,” Williams said. “And Al-Farouq’s defense and rebounding was about as good as it’s been all year.”