As season winds down, Hornets get chance to play some of NBA’s best

Associated Press photo by ALEX BRANDONNew Orleans guard Eric Gordon scrambles for the ball against Washington’s center Nene in the second half Friday in Washington.
Associated Press photo by ALEX BRANDONNew Orleans guard Eric Gordon scrambles for the ball against Washington’s center Nene in the second half Friday in Washington.

N.O. ready to host six contenders

NEW ORLEANS — With a 22-44 record, the New Orleans Hornets, of course, are not going to the NBA playoffs this season.

However, this city’s NBA team and its fans are in for a version of March Madness as the regular season winds down. Beginning Monday, the Hornets will end the month with a home schedule that features six teams currently in playoff spots during the final two weeks of March, a stretch that could give the team a boost of confidence for next season if it does well.

Of course, it will be a daunting task, particularly for a team without two injured key players — backup center/power forward Jason Smith and reserve guard Austin Rivers.

The six teams — the Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat — have a .655 winning percentage and are, respectively, second, third, second, second, first and first in their divisions. And, of course, all are in playoff mode as they gear toward the postseason and with playoff seedings not set in each case.

John DeShazier, the Hornets’ radio color analyst, said the games are as important for the Hornets as they are for the teams in the playoff hunt.

“It’s a chance for them to finish out the season strong, to put on their résumé some wins against some playoff teams and to show the improvement they’ve been looking to show,” he said.

The Hornets are 3-8 against those teams thus far, including 0-2 against the Warriors and Nuggets. For a young team, the crowd could be key.

“To beat some of these teams, generally good teams win at home because they piggy-back at home,” DeShazier said. “If you want to be a good team, you start out being a good team at home, then you learn how to win on the road.”

On Monday, the Hornets face the Warriors, who are seeded sixth in the Western Conference, although they have slipped some of late. Nonetheless, Golden State, led by guard Stephen Curry, averaged 109.5 points in its two victories against New Orleans.

Next up on Wednesday are the Boston Celtics, no doubt smarting from their 90-78 home loss to the Hornets on Jan. 16. With All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo out for the season with a torn right ACL, the Celtics have stepped up their defense behind guard Avery Bradley and have won 13 of their past 17 games. The Celtics, currently in the Eastern Conference’s sixth spot, are looking to catch the Brooklyn Nets at No. 4, where they would have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

On Friday, the Hornets host Memphis, which has a slightly more defensive, grind-it-out style since the trade of standout small forward Rudy Gay that brought it veteran Tayshaun Prince. And, having lost to the Hornets in the team’s second meeting, the Grizzlies certainly do not want the season series to end at 2-2.

Then, the high-flying Denver Nuggets, the fifth seed in the West, come to town on Monday. The Nuggets are one of the NBA’s top teams in rebounding and lead the league in offensive rebounding and points in the lane. And, in two games this season, they have run the Hornets off the court, winning by 18 and 15 points in Denver’s high altitude.

March 27 brings Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers, who will make a return trip to New Orleans on April 12. That series is tied 1-1, with New Orleans stunning the Clippers with a barrage of 3-pointers in winning the first meeting 105-98 in Los Angeles. The Clippers are the West’s No. 4 seed.

It all will come to a head when record-chasing Miami and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh fast-break their way into the Arena on March 29. The Heat ran past the Hornets 106-90 in Miami on Dec. 8. Heading into Milwaukee on Friday as the fourth team in NBA team to win 20 consecutive games, the streak could be at 29 when the Heat comes to New Orleans.

Miami faces a tough road battle against the San Antonio Spurs two nights later, in what could be an NBA finals preview. Might the Heat be looking ahead to that game when it visits New Orleans Arena?

Perhaps the bigger question is will the Hornets, playing in front of its home crowd, approach these six games as if they’re their playoff games.

Road treat

When the Hornets faced the Nets in Brooklyn on Tuesday, it gave lead assistant coach Randy Ayers an opportunity to do something he hasn’t done since joining the Hornets’ coaching staff.

Ayers’ son, Cameron is a junior guard at Bucknell, and the Bison beat Lafayette 64-56 Wednesday in Lewisburg, Pa., to win the Patriot League tournament championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

“It was exciting to see my son play, especially with his team being successful,” Ayers said. “When he was in high school, I used to catch a lot of his games, but since he’s been in college, of course, I don’t get the chance, with me being down here.”

Cameron Ayers, 6-foot-5, who plays both shooting and point guard, was selected All-Patriot League for the second consecutive season. Asked if his son was a pro prospect, Randy Ayers said, “We’re not even thinking like that.”

Cameron majors in Economics. The past two summers, however, he has worked out with the Hornets during their player development program.

Older brother Ryan Ayers played at Notre Dame and now plays professionally in France.

Streak ends

Backup point guard Brian Roberts got his first start of the season on March 10 against the Portland Trail Blazers and had an admirable performance, getting nine assists and having no turnovers while playing nearly 43 minutes.

However, usual starting point guard Greivis Vasquez had just five assists in that game, the first time all season someone other than he led the Hornets in that statistical category.

Vasquez had led the Hornets in 63 consecutive games, the third player in NBA history to lead his team in assists in at least each of the first 60 games of a season. The other two were Jason Kidd, while with the New Jersey Nets, and former Utah Jazz great John Stockton, who did it four times.

Crash course

Ayers said he’s been working with the newest Hornet, power forward Lou Amundson, who was signed Tuesday for the rest of the season.

“I’ve been getting him up to speed with our defensive principles and our calls and terminology,” Ayers said. “Everybody’s is different.”

He said Amundson should be able to contribute immediately because most of what he does is in the lane.

“He’s a guy that is known for playing really hard,” Ayers said. “So we’re getting him ready for this final stretch.”

Life cycle

Mike Abdenour has been the Detroit Pistons’ trainer for 34 years and a trainer in the NBA for 37.

Told that one may have thought Abdenour would have retired by now, he laughed.

“It keeps me young,” he said. “I love every minute of it.

“You see a young team like what you have here in New Orleans and watch ’em build that team and see the players grow toward something special,” he said. “That’s exciting.”

Abdenour said his greatest treat was seeing the Pistons of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars become champions in 1989 and ’90 under coach Chuck Daly. Sometimes, when the team would be dragging while getting dressed in the locker room after a game, Abdenour could be heard bellowing “C’mon, Pistons!”

Of course, he was able to see Detroit win the title again in 2004 under Larry Brown and said he’s hopeful about the current group, led by New Orleans’ Greg Monroe.