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5 Things to Watch for from the New Orleans Hornets Down the Stretch

Ryan ClutterContributor IIIOctober 7, 2016

5 Things to Watch for from the New Orleans Hornets Down the Stretch

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    The New Orleans Hornets sit in the gutter of the NBA’s Southwest Division. It has been a painful season for the Hornets, as coach Monty Williams has had to juggle his lineup game in and game out to deal with constant injuries.

    Eric Gordon hasn’t been able to stay on the court—the most consecutive games he’s played this season is six. Rookie Austin Rivers is likely out for the year after breaking a bone in his right hand, and No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Davis has missed time due to knee and shoulder issues.

    A lack of depth has made this a long season for Hornets fans. When the starters go down or have poor outings, bench play is a crucial ingredient for success. The Hornets haven’t had consistent production from the bench, except for Ryan Anderson.

    With their season in disarray and no hope for the playoffs, New Orleans will be trying to end the season on a high note. That means players bringing the same intensity as if they’re headed to the postseason, with each player polishing his overall game for next season. 

    Here’s what to watch for as the season winds down.

Robin Lopez Becomes Force in the Paint

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    Robin Lopez will always be compared to his twin brother Brook. Brook is the better basketball player, but Robin is quietly having a career year.

    After four subpar years with the Phoenix Suns, Lopez was dealt to New Orleans and now plays alongside Anthony Davis.

    With two players over 6’10”, one would think the paint is controlled by New Orleans every night. That hasn’t been the case.

    Lopez has played relatively soft in the middle, not bringing down offensive rebounds with authority. He has also displayed lackluster defense the majority of the season. 

    While it may not look like it, Lopez is averaging career bests in points (11.1), rebounds (5.3) and blocks (1.6) this season. He’s started each game in which he’s played in and has logged the most minutes in his career (25.8 per game).

    The one thing Lopez needs to establish himself as a worthy center for the Hornets is a paint presence. He has great size and length, but if he can’t use that to dominate in the paint, then he’s going to struggle.

    He needs to be aggressive and has begun to show his physicality. Maybe it took his brother to posterize him for Lopez to realize this.

    In Sunday night’s 97-95 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Lopez scored 20 points and grabbed 11 boards, including eight on the offensive end. His play helped keep the Hornets in the game. More of that level of play is to be expected as the season winds down.

    He has become a stronger presence inside than at any point in his career, which is a step in the right direction. 

    During the stretch run, expect Lopez to elevate his game and become even more of a force in the paint.

Greivis Vasquez Continues to Shine

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    To put it simply, Greivis Vasquez is a stud.

    Flying largely under the radar this season, Vasquez, a Venezuela native, is leading the league in assists. At 625 for the season, he has almost 100 more than his nearest competitor, Jrue Holiday (533).

    In this third NBA season, Vasquez has worked his way up to the starting point guard spot. He started just one game his rookie season with the Memphis Grizzlies, started 26 games last season for the Hornets and has started every game this season. 

    The clear leader of this team, Vasquez is one of the only reliable options for Williams. He has 24 double-doubles and is averaging 14 points, to go along with his 9.4 assists per game.

    Additionally, Vasquez and LeBron James are the only players in the NBA with at least six games of 20 points, 10 assists and five rebounds.

    His court vision enables him to excel at the point guard position. A pass-first type of player, Vasquez can also knock down jumpers to keep defenders honest.

    Coming into his own this year, Vasquez has earned the confidence of Williams and his teammates. He needs to continue to produce and elevate his game for the remainder of the season.

    From Michael Lee of The Washington Post, Vasquez said,

    We’re building a program here. New Orleans, it’s a good spot for me. I just want to stay focused and have a great NBA career. I have a big responsibility right now. This is my chance to shine. Being mature and being a man, this is your chance to prove to the league.

     

    Vasquez has plenty to play for. He has excelled in facilitating the New Orleans offense, but one solid year isn’t good enough to be a mainstay in the NBA. He knows he has to show that he deserves to lead the offense beyond this season.

    His work ethic and dedication to become a top point guard may earn him the NBA's Most Improved Player Award this season. Coming so early in his career, such recognition will only add to his confidence.

Eric Gordon Performs for the Full 48 Minutes

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    When healthy, Eric Gordon is the best scorer on this team. He is averaging a team-high 17 points per game and can hit a shot from anywhere on the floor.

    However, his season has been a tale of two halves. Electrifying performances in the early going gave way to lackluster efforts in the second half.

    Gordon didn’t play his first game this season until Dec. 29, due to a knee injury, and he has since been told by team doctors that he can’t play on back-to-back days. This could be a reason his rhythm is in shambles, yet if he’s able to open games lights out from the field, he should be able to continue at least near that level for the full 48 minutes

    As an example, on Feb. 22 versus Dallas, Gordon had 12 first-quarter points and eight points in the second quarter. He finished the game with 23 points, and the Hornets lost by four. He was 1-of-9 from the field in the second half.

    Starting to get back to 100 percent, Gordon needs to feed off his first half success and play with the same determination in the second half of games down the stretch.

    Things have begun to turn around. On March 12 versus Brooklyn, Gordon had 17 of his 24 points in the second half, dropping 10 in the final period. Though the Hornets still lost, Gordon's second half performance was significant.

    It hasn’t been an easy season for Gordon, and he’ll look to the offseason to ensure he’s 100 percent for next year. Still, establishing in the remaining games that he can be the go-to guy late in a contest will work wonders for his confidence heading into next season.

    The best scorer needs to have the ball in his hands in crunch time. Gordon needs to execute late in games for that to happen.

Role of Spoiler

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    It’s that time of the year. Teams with no postseason chances make their games meaningful by knocking off teams with playoff hopes. That will be the Hornets role down the stretch.

    The upcoming schedule features 12 games against teams with playoff aspirations.

    Ending the season with a home-and-home against the Dallas Mavericks makes the Hornets role that much more important. True, Dallas would need to get hot (and would need teams in front of them to lose) between now and the end of the season, but if they do, those last two games could very well be must-win games for the Mavs. The Hornets will treat those games as their own mini playoff series.

    In recent games, the Hornets have kept up with their opponents and remained competitive, just to fall short at the end.

    They won’t step out of the way for any opponent. That includes their upcoming clash with the Miami Heat on March 29, when they could play spoiler for a different reason: ending a winning streak.

    Regardless of the opponent, the Hornets will play to win. They’ll have something to play for. If they can’t make the playoffs, they are going to do everything they can to stand in the way of another team reaching the playoffs.

    Ryan Anderson's electrifying long-range shooting could play the role of the spoiler. It could be the court vision and ability to find the open man by Vasquez. Or, it could be dominant outings by Davis and Lopez. This team has the characters to frustrate an opponent's playoff hopes. 

    No different than last year, the spoiler role will be out again this season.

Build Camaraderie for the Future

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    There’s no better time to build team chemistry and camaraderie than now. The Hornets have a young group of players who are still getting used to each other.

    With the different lineups and rotations Monty Williams has gone with, there hasn’t been much of a chance to get comfortable. 

    The players need to know their roles. Williams goes with the hot hand or the preferable matchup in any given game, leaving some of the Hornets best players on the bench at meaningful junctures of games.

    Some of Williams' decisions have met with strong fan disapproval, none more so than when he sat Anthony Davis for the entire fourth quarter against the Lakers—the game in which the Hornets blew a 24-point lead.

    That said, despite the 22-45 record, the Hornets season hasn’t been a complete failure. The young core will at season’s end have played a full year together and this experience will help its future development.

    Next season, we’ll still see Davis, Lopez, Gordon, Vasquez, Rivers and Anderson donning the Hornets uniform (or the Pelicans). Each has seen his share of playing time this season, and the up-and-comers are getting used to the pace of the NBA.

    So in the season’s final 15 games, New Orleans should take the step to build team chemistry. They’ll have the offseason to get healthy and work out the kinks of this season. Ending on a high note and playing good team basketball will benefit the team heading into next season.

    The talent is there for a successful future, now it’s time to play spoiler and build team chemistry.

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