Hornets to end long road swing at Denver, Minnesota

NEW ORLEANS — It’s not an ambush if you can see it coming.

However, for the New Orleans Hornets (15-31), Friday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets (29-18) might feel like one, if the Hornets don’t play better than they have of late. New Orleans has lost four of its past five games heading into Denver, a team on a roll and brimming with confidence.

Then, on Saturday night, the Hornets play at the Minnesota Timberwolves, who were shorthanded in losing in New Orleans the last time the teams met.

The Nuggets, who thrashed the Hornets 102-84 in their first meeting on Nov. 25 at Denver, look to be no less of a challenge now. The Nuggets are no less the athletic, rebounding team they were then, and the high altitude of Denver makes it even more of a challenge. The Hornets were noticeable tired in the second half of the teams’ previous meeting.

Now, New Orleans is going against a team that began the year with a resounding victory and has kept it up. The Nuggets snapped the Clippers’ franchise-record 17-game winning streak on Jan. 1, holding high-flying Los Angeles to a season-low 78 points and 38.5 percent shooting.

Denver, which is playing the fourth game of a six-game homestand, was 12-3 in January and has won its past five games. That has even coach George Karl feeling his team has a chance for something big.

“It was a great month,” Karl said. “We needed a special month, and I think we got it. It puts us in position to hopefully have a great season.”

The Hornets lost both games of a back-to-back, coming up short at the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night then losing at Utah on Wednesday in which they led by 10 in the first quarter only for bad-quarter time to come again. New Orleans was outscored 32-18 in the second quarter. The loss had coach Monty Williams questioning his moves.

“It might be me putting the wrong guys in the game,” he said. “It seems to be the same few guys making the mistakes. That may sound harsh. This is a harsh league. Guys don’t understand how you have to play on a consistent basis.”

Eric Gordon sat out the Utah game because it was the second game of a back-to-back, and the team wants to be cautious with his right knee. Gordon will play Friday night.

Then, on Saturday night, the Hornets play at Minnesota, and that could get interesting. In the teams’ previous meeting, on Jan. 11, New Orleans won 104-92 against the Timberwolves, whose lineup was depleted by injuries. Most notably, power forward Kevin Love, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, was out after breaking his hand against Denver on Jan. 3. And, backup point guard Jose Barea missed the game with back spasms.

Minnesota also was without coach Rick Adelman, who stayed behind with his wife, Mary Kay, who was hospitalized. Adelman returned Wednesday against the Clippers, as his wife had remained in the hospital for three weeks while doctors searched for the reason she was having seizures.

Love is out eight to 10 weeks after having surgery on Jan. 15. However, Barea is back, and he was key during the fourth quarter of Minnesota’s dominating 113-102 win over the Hornets on Dec. 14 in the New Orleans Arena.

It’s the Jan. 11 game that likely will have the Timberwolves awaiting the Hornets, though. However, Minnesota, who played the Lakers on Thursday, has struggled mightily of late, having lost 10 of 11 games.

“We’re a nice team,” Barea said. “We’ve got a bunch of nice guys. But we need to be a little tougher. That’s something we’ve got to work on, stop being too nice.”

After Saturday’s game, the Hornets don’t play again until Wednesday night against Phoenix at the Arena.