NEW ORLEANS — The Hornets seemed to be in dire straits with their starting backcourt of Greivis Vasquez and Eric Gordon out with left ankle injuries for Monday’s game against the Denver Nuggets, who entered on a 15-game winning streak.
But the Hornets proved to be in good hands with backup point guard Brian Roberts.
With Roberts stunning the Nuggets with 18 assists — he also had 13 points — the Hornets posted an improbable 110-86 victory at New Orleans Arena.
The 18 assists were a Hornets season high and the most in the NBA by a rookie since 2010. And the double-double was Roberts’ first.
The victory was the third in a row for New Orleans (25-46) in the fourth of six consecutive home games against teams in playoff position. It also avenged two losses in Denver this season by an average of 21.5 points. The Nuggets (49-23), who were on a franchise record streak, had not lost since Feb. 22.
“I just stayed in attack mode for the time I was out there, and it felt good to be out there and perform well and to get the win,” said Roberts, who played 41 minutes, 11 seconds and had just three turnovers. “That’s the main thing — we got the win.”
The Nuggets played without point guard Ty Lawson, who has a right heel injury, for the third consecutive game — and Denver has struggled in all three. But coach George Karl would not use that as an excuse, even though the Hornets’ ability to control the tempo was a key to the game.
“(Lawson) makes everybody fit,” Karl said. “But the little kid (Roberts) picked us apart. (The Hornets) played with confidence, and they played with a defensive intensity we hadn’t seen in a long time. And we tried to fight back, and (Roger Mason) hit some 3s that hurt us in the second half. They played better than we did. They earned our (beatdown) tonight.”
Roberts, who was making his second start of the season, had help from another Hornet making a rare start. Darius Miller, starting in place of Gordon, had 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting, including 4-of-5 on 3-point attempts. Ryan Anderson scored 23 points, going 5-of-11 on 3s. He led seven Hornets in double figures.
The most telling statistic was that the Hornets beat up the Nuggets, who are among the NBA’s top rebounding teams, 45-32 on the boards — the third consecutive game New Orleans has soundly gotten the better of a formidable foe.
The Hornets sewed up the victory with a 9-2 run to take a 103-84 lead with 3:26 left. New Orleans scored 16 of the game’s final 20 points.
Leading 86-68 when the fourth quarter started, the Hornets had to fight off the Nuggets one last time. Denver closed to 94-82 at the 7:20 mark.
That’s when the Hornets took off.
Entering the third, the Hornets were in complete control, with Roberts having his way with 37-year-old point guard Andre Miller. Andre Iguodala, at 6-foot-6, then Corey Brewer 6-8, began guarding Roberts, 6-2, with the Nuggets often trying to trap him. The moves affected the Hornets’ offense and let the Nuggets get the tempo more to their liking.
That was short-lived, though, as Roberts adjusted.
“I just used my quickness,” he said. “That was my advantage.”
Denver went on a 14-4 run to cut a 59-38 halftime lead to 65-52 at 8:12 of the third quarter. The score was 67-58 midway through when Mason sank the first of two big 3s.
Denver came to 77-66 at 3:31 when Al-Farouq Aminu drove, was fouled and made two free throws, sending the Hornets on a 9-2 run to end the quarter. Mason ended the run with a 3 with 42.8 to go that pushed the margin to 86-68.
Despite the Nuggets’ defensive change, Roberts finished the quarter with 15 assists.
He had a career high 11 as the Hornets rolled to a jaw-dropping 59-38 halftime lead.
With Roberts at the command, the Hornets were able to play a more deliberate style that prevented the rip-and-run Nuggets from getting into their fast-break style. New Orleans had just seven turnovers in the half.
New Orleans built on its 11-point first-quarter lead as the second went on. Mason, at 7:12, and Anderson, at 4:17, hit 3-pointers that kept the lead at 14 — 39-25, then 46-42.
When Roberts got his career-high 10th assist at 2:42, to center Robin Lopez, it made the score 52-37, and the Hornets closed the half on a 7-1 run. New Orleans scored on its last nine possessions and 11 of its final 12.