The New Orleans Hornets left New Orleans Arena Wednesday from their shootaround knowing they'd be playing that night's game versus the perennial contender San Antonio Spurs without their highest paid, and statistically-speaking most important player, Eric Gordon. Gordon was ruled out "indefinitely" with a bum knee.
In the 2012 season, the Hornets won six of the nine contests Gordon played in. That is two-thirds, or 67 percent. Interestingly enough, the "Halloween at the Hive" crowd seemed to fill about two-thirds of the arena Wednesday night.
But those who were in the arena were loud and very much into the season's opening contest. The night began with the entire team being introduced to the hometown crowd, save for Gordon—whose only recognition of the night was in the opening introduction video. He was booed.
Yet, losing by four points, it's hard to imagine Hornets fans wouldn't have liked to see Gordon on the court. With rookie Austin Rivers starting in Gordon's place at shooting guard, the Hornets lacked the defensive awareness and playmaking Gordon brings when healthy.
Rivers looked nervous and uneasy in his first NBA go-round. It seemed he knew the reputation that preceded him—cocky and selfish—and was determined in his first NBA game to dispel that. Unfortunately, the team could have used a little more of that attitude against the Spurs.
Rivers did drive the lane successfully a few times to get fouled and go to the free-throw line. More of that is needed in the future, as the offense tended to bog down a bit when Rivers had the ball in his hands and while playing point guard (which he did when starter Greivis Vasquez took a rest).
It was encouraging to see the ultra-aggressive play of Al-Farouq Aminu, who had 17 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and three blocks. Coming into opening night, many fans and analysts alike were questioning the third-year former lottery pick of the Clippers. In his lone season in New Orleans last year, he lacked aggression and often looked lost in Monty Williams' defensive-minded system.
Aminu was the Hornets' second best player Wednesday night, behind rookie No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis, who had 21 points, seven rebounds, a block and a steal. Both missed explosive dunks—had each gone down, the result may have been different.
But the two brought an attitude and aggression to the court that really infected the rest of the team. Aminu had two or three SportsCenter top-10 dunks, and the two were regularly seen swatting Spurs shots and making outside jump shots.
It was an exciting start for the incredibly young team. The game was eerily reminiscent of a season ago when the team fought hard for 48 minutes but ultimately came up short.
Williams and general manager Dell Demps warned fans to temper the expectations this season. There will be growing pains, such as losing a game in which the team leads by seven points at half after thoroughly outplaying the opponent.
Are the Hornets better with or without Eric Gordon on the court?
The Hornets' motto this season is "This is Our Game." The team then will insert different qualities and characteristics into the middle of that sentence. Among those are "passion," "aggression" and "leadership."
Wednesday night, passion and aggression abounded. Aminu, Davis, Vasquez (who had 13 assists) and Jason Smith (to name but a few) all brought tremendous energy and regularly pushed the pedal to the metal on both ends of the court. The entire team played well and made aggressive mistakes, while limiting dumb mistakes.
But that last quality—leadership—seemed to be missing, at least to some extent. That quality is supposed to be brought to you by a max contract guy. Gordon is the guy who is supposed to be the "closer" on this team. Instead, he was nowhere to be found in uniform.
The Hornets lost a lot of close games in 2012 without Gordon. His presence may have been the difference between losing by four and winning by one, two or however much against the veteran Spurs.
Most fans left the Hive pleased with the team's effort Wednesday night, but knowing the youthful team had lost a game it should have won. Some will point to Gordon as the perpetrator of the loss. In this case, it's hard to argue.
The Hornets need Gordon if they're going to win close games in 2012-13. Without him, there figures to be a lot more of these close-but-no-cigar efforts.
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