Hornets close out homestand with Cavs

NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Hornets just completed a string of home games in which they went an encouraging 3-3 against high-caliber competition.

That is particularly true in light of season-ending injuries to key reserves Jason Smith and Austin Rivers and losing starting point guard Greivis Vasquez to a badly sprained ankle.

However, almost lost in all the hoopla of the Warriors, Lakers, Celtics, Nuggets, Clippers and Heat coming to town is that the Hornets also have one last home opponent. An Easter Sunday crowd will welcome the Cleveland Cavaliers.

A win would help the young Hornets forget that they’ve lost the past two games and, of course, more importantly give them a successful record in the final true homestand and their biggest of the season.

“If we win (against Cleveland), it just makes for a really good homestand, a great homestand,” coach Monty Williams said after Saturday’s practice. “We won some games against some teams most people wouldn’t think we’d have a chance against. But it would be great if we could get this one before we head out on the road.”

In April, the final month of the season, the Hornets play six of their eight games on the road, beginning with a five-game stretch before returning home April 12 against the Clippers.

Sunday, however, they go against the Cavaliers (22-48), an opponent most remembered for the 20-point fourth-quarter explosion by their second-year All-Star point guard, Kyrie Irving, who led them to a 105-100 victory in Cleveland on Feb. 20, the last time the teams met.

That touched off a string of four wins in five games by the Cavs.

Then, on March 10 at Toronto, Irving injured his shoulder in a collision and was lost for the season. The injury is officially a left acromioclavicular sprain.

Cleveland won its next game, at home against Washington, and have since lost seven in a row. Among the setbacks was a devastating loss to Miami on March 20. With a chance to end the Heat’s then 22-game winning streak, the Cavaliers whipped their crowd into a frenzy by building a 27-point lead with 7:02 left in the third quarter, only to see LeBron James rally the Heat to a stunning victory.

Two nights later at Houston, their heads still down, the Rockets, fighting desperately to make the playoffs, crushed the Cavaliers by 38 points.

Still, Irving or no Irving, the respective games against the Heat show the Cavs remain more than capable against another young team weakened by injuries.

“That same team had a 27-point lead against Miami,” Williams said. “So, from that standpoint, we have to be ready for a really good team, and not play the record. I think teams get in trouble against us when they play our record.

“They get after you with their intensity, they run the all down the floor, and they have a big point guard who they can post up in (6-foot-7 Shaun) Livingston, and their big players have gotten better since the start of the season.”

From the standpoint of young, talented personnel and how they fit, the Cavaliers certainly appear to be ahead of the Hornets, Irving aside. In the first meeting between the teams, rookie shooting guard Dion Waiters had 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including a jumper in the third quarter that gave Cleveland the lead.

Center Tyler Zeller, a rookie from North Carolina, had 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting. Second-year power forward Tristan Thompson had just nine points but 13 rebounds, including five on offense. His activity in the lane resulted in his getting 12 free throws. Alonzo Gee also made three of four 3-point attempts in finishing with 10 points.

That bears watching Sunday, as the Hornets have given up 27 3-pointers the past two games, with the Heat torching New Orleans on 14-of-27 (51.9 percent) from behind the line after the Clippers shot a torrid 13-of-29 (44.8).

“It’s a concern, but it’s also teams who can shoot the ball,” Williams said. “We have to guard the line better, but also, if you’re playing great offense, (opponents) are taking the ball out of the net, then you can set your defense. A lot of the 3s are in transition.”

Cleveland shoots 35 percent from behind the arc, which ranks just 22nd in the league, and Irving is its leading 3-point shooter. However, eight-year veteran C.J. Miles (38.5) and Wayne Ellington (40.6) can hurt an opponent from deep, as well as Gee.