AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS — If it sounds ludicrous to even mention the New Orleans Hornets’ remote playoff chances, that’s one rookie mistake Austin Rivers is happy to make.
“You never know. We might be able to make the playoffs. That’s the only way you can look at it,” Rivers said as the Hornets headed into All-Star weekend with a 19-34 record. “Right after All-Star break we have to really be focused. If we can make a run, you never know what can happen, because a lot of teams ahead of us aren’t that far ahead.”
While Rivers’ expectations seem far-fetched, the source of his optimism is evident.
After a dismal 5-22 start, the Hornets have been winning more often than not since late December, around the time second-leading scorer Eric Gordon returned from rehabilitation of his right knee. They’ve won four of their last five games, and 14 of 26.
It’s a trend Portland coach Terry Stotts made note of about an hour before his team was routed by New Orleans, 99-63, on Wednesday night.
“They are a different team with Eric. He can shoot and create shots for others,” Stotts said. “They are a much better team than what they were earlier this season. They are a different team than their record shows.”
Lately, the Hornets are playing well even when Gordon sits out. They won their past two games by double digits without him. Gordon rested his knee during a 19-point win at Detroit and was supposed to play against the Trail Blazers, but was a late scratch because a right hand injury from the shoot around earlier Wednesday still bothered him.
“Since Eric’s come back we’ve played so much better, and even the games he’s been out we’re still winning games because now we just believe in ourselves,” Rivers said.
At this point, the Hornets would have to make a remarkable run — finishing with 22 victories in their last 29 games — just to get back to .500 by season’s end. Even if they pulled that off, it might not be good enough for a postseason berth in the Western Conference. The Hornets will resume the season nine games behind Houston for that final playoff spot.
Hornets coach Monty Williams only hopes his team maintains its recent trajectory.
“We are a team that is moving in the right direction,” Williams said. “We’re a young team. We’ve had ups and downs. In my book, more up than down because we play hard every single night — at least we try to. That’s tough to get young guys to do.”
For now, the Hornets — who’ll be renamed the Pelicans after this season — are still more about potential. Three of their regulars — starting forward Anthony Davis, Rivers and backup point guard Brian Roberts — are all in their first NBA seasons (though Roberts has played professionally overseas). Other than veteran guard Roger Mason Jr., no one on the roster has more than four full years of NBA experience.
Davis, a top overall draft pick who won a college national title with Kentucky, and then an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. team in London last summer, had 21 points and 11 rebounds in Wednesday’s win and now heads to All-Star weekend in Houston, where he’ll play in a “Rising Stars” exhibition game for top rookies and second-year players.
Starting point guard Greivis Vasquez, now in his fourth season out of Maryland, has emerged as a strong candidate for the NBA’s most improved player. He’s averaging 13.9 points and 9.4 assists, and recently recorded his first triple-double in a victory at Atlanta.
“The first part of the season was a good learning process for us,” Vasquez said. “Now the second half is going to be really important.
“That’s when we can really show progress and see how the future looks,” he added. “I’m very positive about the second half because we’re playing great basketball the last two weeks.”
Ryan Anderson, who was the NBA’s most improved player with Orlando last season, is now the Hornets’ leading scorer, averaging 17.1 points and leading the league in 3-pointers made with 159.
Robin Lopez is having his best season yet; the center is averaging nearly 12 points per game and gives the Hornets two 7-footers, along with forward Jason Smith, to guard the inside with certain lineups. High-flying third-year small forward Al-Farouq Aminu is showing signs of more consistent production, with six double-doubles in the last six weeks.
“I’d love to have more wins but from a growth standpoint, I think we’re in a good spot,” Williams said. “We’ve just got to continue to move in the right direction as far as defending, everybody picking up our system and just going into these last 20-plus games doing things that we know are going to help us finish the foundation. And then, this summer, we can add to that.”