Greivis Vasquez expects bittersweet return to New Orleans

Greivis Vasquez is with a team that will be in the NBA playoffs, but he knows what it means to miss New Orleans.

Vasquez, a 6-foot-6 point guard, played for the New Orleans Hornets the previous two seasons and last season finished second in the NBA in assists at 9.0 and in the voting for the Most Improved Player award. But he was traded to the Sacramento Kings last summer in the deal that brought guard/forward Tyreke Evans to New Orleans.

“New Orleans is still in my heart,” Vasquez said Tuesday, choking up. “New Orleans was such a great experience for me. It really put me on the map in terms of being the starting point guard.

“I was really sad when I got traded, because I was really committed to the city and the fans.”

Vasquez was traded again Dec. 9 to the Toronto Raptors, whom the New Orleans Pelicans (27-39) meet for the second time Wednesday night at the Smoothie King Center. The Raptors beat the Pelicans 108-101 in Toronto on Feb. 10.

In that trade, Toronto sent small forward Rudy Gay to Sacramento. That deal rejuvenated the Raptors. Toronto is 30-15 since the trade, which involved seven players. The record is the second-best in the Eastern Conference since then. The Raptors lead the Atlantic Division and currently are the third seeds in the East for the playoffs.

“I missed the playoffs the previous two years,” said Vasquez, who was drafted by Memphis in 2010 and played well as a rookie in the postseason. “It will be fun for me to be back in the playoffs. I think we have one of the most complete teams in terms of the right roster, the right personnel. We have a good chemistry.”

With Gay, the Raptors had a stagnant offense in a system in which he first worked as the main scoring option, then as a point forward after his deficiencies became too evident as a player who needs too many shots to be effective.

The trade opened up the offense and created opportunities for a team of athletic players, most notably point guard Kyle Lowry, who has a solid all-around game. Lowry is joined on the perimeter by young All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and small forward Terrance Ross.

“Lowry has played at a high clip all year long,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “DeRozan making the All-Star team is a big deal, but I really believe that Lowry has been the catalyst for that team, his ability to lead and hit timely shots. He’s a bulldog in the paint.”

Lowry, just 6 feet but 205 pounds, is averaging 17.0 points, 8.2 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.56 steals per game. In a 104-103 victory Jan. 27 at Brooklyn, the second-place team in the Atlantic, Lowry became the first player this season to get at least 30 points, five rebounds, five steals and five assists in one game. He had a triple-double on March 9 in a victory at Minnesota.

“He is playing out of his mind,” said Vasquez, who backs him up and is averaging 8.0 points and 3.9 playing 20.2 minutes per game since coming to Toronto.

Sometimes, Coach Dwane Casey pairs Vasquez with Lowry in the backcourt, allowing Lowry to be more aggressive as a scorer.

“When them matchups allow us to do that, we have been successful,” Vasquez said. “(Lowry) can score at every angle on the court.”

Last season, Williams constantly got on Vasquez about his defense and penchant for trying to make “home-run plays.”

“I rode him as hard as I’ve ridden anybody because he was so important to our team,” Williams said.

However, Williams came away with a healthy respect for Vasquez.

“Greivis is tough,” he said. “He played two months on bad ankles when he could have shut it down for the rest of the season.”

A season in which the Hornets went just 27-55.

However, Vasquez, who will be a restricted free agent at season’s end, said having played through the pain is what makes this season hurtful.

“I was looking forward to this season and being healthy,” he said. “So, now I’m healthy but I’m not in New Orleans any more. I was close to all those guys.”

He said he watches Pelicans games sometimes.

“I saw the last three games, and Anthony Davis just went off,” he said. “That’s huge. That gives the team hope. I wish them nothing but the best, but not (Wednesday) against us.”