Robin Lopez becoming bigger scoring threat

Hornets’ Lopez on scoring tear  in last 4 games

NEW ORLEANS — With the Hornets perhaps having a chance to taste a string of success, center Robin Lopez stands squarely in the middle of it all.

Lopez, 7 feet, 255 pounds, came up big in the Hornets’ much-needed 97-94 victory at Orlando on Wednesday night, scoring 29 points on 9-of-10 shooting. The win snapped an 11-game losing streak.

That performance came on the heels of his 24 points on 11-of-16 shooting, 11 rebounds and six blocked shots in a home loss to the Indiana Pacers on Dec. 22.

Tonight, the Hornets (6-22) play the Toronto Raptors (9-20) at New Orleans Arena, followed by a game at the Charlotte Bobcats (7-21) on Saturday night.

The last time the Hornets won back-to-back games was Nov. 2-3 vs. Utah and at Chicago. New Orleans last won three straight games between April 11-16, when they actually reeled off four straight.

The Raptors had won five consecutive games before Wednesday night’s 100-80 blowout by the Spurs in San Antonio. However, Toronto is without three injured starters — forward Andrea Bargnani (right elbow, torn wrist ligament), guard Kyle Lowry (torn right triceps) and center Jonas Valanciunas (fractured right ring finger).

In the past four games, Lopez has averaged 21.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocks. He shrugs off his recent impressive play, but hints that perhaps it was to be expected.

“I’ve always worked to improve my game, no matter where I’ve been,” he said.

Hornets coach Monty Williams said Lopez has worked diligently after practice since training camp began and that he has taken well under the tutelage of lead assistant coach Randy Ayers, who is responsible for developing the Hornets big men.

Surprisingly, Ayers said he didn’t have to change much with Lopez, who averaged just 5.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game during four seasons with the Phoenix Suns before coming to the Hornets in a trade in late July.

“We tried to tinker with his footwork and get his base a little bit more established so he has power,” Ayers said. “Just at the end of his drive, having balance so he can shoot with some strength.”

Lopez appears to be gaining confidence as he scores in a variety of ways: put-backs, drives, post-ups, mid-range jump shots and rolls to the basket.

“I think our spacing has gotten better as we’ve become more comfortable with each other, and then Coach Williams has been calling his number more, throwing (the ball) into him,” Ayers said. “And, he’s taking his type of shot. He’s a good perimeter shooter from about 12 to 14 feet, and (against Orlando), he hit a couple of those as well.”

Ayers said he’d like to see Lopez’s conditioning improve so he can beat other big men down the court for more layups.

“He can run the floor, and he has great hands,” Ayers said. “That’s a great start for a big man.”

Before Toronto’s recent winning streak, they had lost six in a row. They are 2-15 on the road.

The Hornets go to Charlotte on Saturday night to face the Bobcats, who started 7-5, equaling their victory total for last season. However, since then, they have lost 16 consecutive games. Their last win was Nov. 24 at Washington.

Williams said backup center Jason Smith’s status for tonight’s game is questionable. His return looks imminent, however.

Smith worked hard on his conditioning after Thursday’s practice, running sprints up and down the court. He has been out since Dec. 14 with a sprained right shoulder, and has missed seven games.

Williams had said Wednesday night that guard Eric Gordon, who has not played this season, could return for the Bobcats game, even though he added it’s not definite. Gordon, too, has been working on conditioning, and said there is no longer any pain in his right patella.

“At his point, I don’t think there will be any setbacks,” Gordon said after Thursday’s practice.

“I’ll probably start off playing about 25 minutes a game, and hopefully in about two weeks I’ll be able to play with no minutes restrictions.”