NEW ORLEANS — Sunday could be a day of atonement for the New Orleans Hornets as they tip off against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Target Center.
In the previous meeting between the teams, which took place Feb. 2 and also was in Minneapolis, the Hornets were hardly there, losing by 29 points as the Timberwolves shot 58.4 percent.
“We were embarrassed, and that is unacceptable,” Hornets coach Monty Williams said.
Blame that one on the schedule, however, as the Hornets were playing their fourth game in five nights as part of a brutal five-games-in-seven-days Western Conference road trip. The T-Wolves were the final game of that trip, and it appeared the Hornets just wanted to come home.
The Hornets (22-44), who have lost five of their past six games overall, again are playing the Wolves (22-41) before returning home, this time after three road games in seven days. A brutal stand awaits at home the next two weeks, though, starting Monday vs. Golden State, against six teams in playoff spots.
However, one very wiry figure could might stand in the Hornets’ way of heading home with a victory. Former LSU center Chris Johnson, 6-feet-11, 210 pounds, has been making the most of his second opportunity with the Timberwolves.
Waived by Minnesota just before the season began, Johnson was signed for the rest of the season on Feb. 7 after completing his second 10-day contract with the team.
He has averaged 5.3 points on a whopping 64.6 percent shooting and 2.7 rebounds as a reserve.
With starting center Nikola Pekovic injured, Johnson averaged 8.6 points on 75 percent shooting and 3.6 rebounds playing 15 minutes per game after being the first call-up in the history of the NBA Development League’s Santa Cruz Warriors.
“I’m just trying to prove that I want to be here,” said Johnson, who left LSU in 2009. “I want to belong here.”
He showed that in his Timberwolves debut against Houston on Jan. 19 at the Target Center, making his Oct. 27 release look like a mistake. Johnson scored 13 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter of a 92-78 victory. At one stretch, fans were chanting M-V-P! M-V-P!
Johnson knows he has to continue playing well during this extended audition. The Wolves are now considering giving him a longer contract.
“We don’t have somebody who plays above the rim like that,” said David Kahn, the team’s president of basketball operations. “It’s just nice to have that capability on the roster.
“That’s why he came to training camp this year, and that’s why he almost made the team to begin with.”
In a minor subplot to the game, Johnson could go against Hornets reserve power forward Lou Amundson. Amundson played 20 games with the Wolves but was released Feb. 8, the day after the team decided to keep Johnson and forward Mickael Gelabale after both exhausted two 10-day deals and the team, by league rules, had to release them or sign them for the season.
After Johnson’s impressive start with the Wolves, Amundson fell behind him in the rotation.
With the Wolves, who have lost four of their past five, ailing once again, Johnson can be expected to play considerable minutes off the bench tonight. Pekovic is out with an abdominal strain and did not play in Friday’s loss at Houston. Forward Andrei Kirilenko has a strained left calf and also didn’t play Friday.
Johnson is also no stranger to Hornets coach Monty Williams. He was picked up by New Orleans nearly a year ago — on March 19 — and played seven games after appearing in 20 with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Amundson played 17:48 in his Hornets debut, Friday night’s 96-87 loss at Washington. He had one point, four rebounds and three assists.
In a twist of sorts, he and Johnson played in the win over the Hornets on Feb. 2. Amundson scored eight points, tying his season high, and Johnson had six.
They both played 7 minutes, 59 seconds. Six days later, Amundson was waived.