NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Hornets have hit the road with coach Monty Williams espousing terms such as “character guys,” “good chemistry” and “good win.”
That’s what happens when a short-handed team holds on for a much-needed home victory right after it appeared that a disturbing trend of losing big leads had developed.
The Portland Trail Blazers came into New Orleans Arena on Sunday night looking to avenge a 36-point drubbing at the hands of the Hornets at the Arena in the previous meeting between the teams. And the Hornets looked vulnerable. They’d had consecutive home losses in which lowly Orlando and the Lakers came back from double-digit deficits to win, and they would be without their top two shooting guards.
However, a couple of unsung heroes stepped up, leaving the Hornets with a positive feeling as they head into Tuesday night’s rematch against the Brooklyn Nets. The game is the first of three in a row on the road and the only road trip this month, with games at Washington on Friday and Minnesota on Sunday.
Point guard Greivis Vasquez, shifting to shooting guard with starter Eric Gordon and injured backup Austin Rivers unavailable, said the Hornets needed the win against Portland for their confidence.
Brian Roberts got his first start as an NBA player and led the team with nine assists. It was the first time this season, after 63 games, that anyone other than Vasquez had led the Hornets in that category.
“To play (42 minutes, 54 seconds) on a back-to-back (game), after you just had a baby, so you know he hasn’t slept in about three days,” Williams said. “What a big opportunity and moment for him.”
Roberts, who had seen his playing time cut of late as Rivers improved, wasn’t the only reserve to have a big game when the Hornets needed it. Lance Thomas was effective again in a defensive role. Seldom-used Darius Miller looked no part rusty in infusing energy into the team, and old reliable Roger Mason Jr. was steady again.
Thomas had slowed down Greg Monroe in a close win over Detroit on March 1, and his work against LaMarcus Aldridge was key in giving the Hornets a chance at the end Sunday night. It made Portland more of an outside team, instead of one with inside and outside options, and was one reason the Hornets were able to get some stops. Thomas also scored seven points in 10 minutes 21 seconds.
Miller had five games in the previous nine in which he didn’t get any playing time; and in three others, he had a high of 3 minutes, 36 seconds. After playing 17:20 against Memphis on Saturday out of necessity with the roster so thin, Miller, who spent most of January in the NBA Development League, looked decisive in his play aginst Portland.
One play in which his intuitiveness paid off came with 6:53 left in the game. Miller was stationed behind the 3-point line near the left sideline. Vasquez, probing, drove to that side, but was cut off and passed to him. Miller blew past the closing defender toward the goal, then turned and passed back to Vasquez, who was now in the spot vacated by Miller behind the 3-point line. Vasquez sank a 3-pointer that gave New Orleans an 87-77 lead.
Miller, who scored eight points, had a similar play with 35 seconds left in the game that drew a foul, although it didn’t result in free throws.
However, the Hornets retained the ball, and with 15.6 seconds left, Ryan Anderson sank a big 3-pointer. Playing 23 minutes, Miller had eight points, five assists with no turnovers and three rebounds.
“I told the guys that you don’t know who’s going to play,” Williams said. “I thought Darius came in and knocked down timely shots and made great passes. He was pretty solid.”
Mason scored 10 points and was a steadying influence. Led by Anderson’s 20, the bench pummeled Portland’s 45-11.
The Hornets will need another stellar performance against the Nets. Brooklyn slipped past New Orleans 101-97 on Feb. 26 at the Arena behind 33 points by point guard Deron Williams, who scored the Nets’ last 11 in the game’s final 1:24.
Bothered by injuries much of the season, Williams has come on of late. Since the All-Star break, he is averaging 23.1 points (6.4 more than before the break), a 47.2 field-goal percentage (5.9 percent better) that includes 50.7 percent (16 percent increase) on 3-pointers, and 89.4 percent on free throws (3.9 percent better).
The Nets, who were 8-4 in their past 12 games, had won three in a row heading into Monday night’s game at Philadelphia, including a big win at Atlanta, 93-80, on Sunday.