NEW ORLEANS — When this stretch of home games against playoff-caliber competition began for the New Orleans Hornets on Monday, it appeared to be a good challenge for a young team and exciting entertainment for its fans.
The Hornets (22-46) are in the midst of games every other night against the likes of the Warriors, Celtics, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Clippers and ending with the defending champion, the streaking Miami Heat.
It’s a chance to wipe away the frustration of an injury-plagued losing season of growing pains and latch on to some momentum on which to build confidence for next season. Coach Monty Williams expressed the importance of that and more after Monday’s loss to Golden State.
“The way we finish the season will dictate a lot about how this team is made up next year,” Williams said. “I’m watching and other teams are watching, just as we are watching how players on other teams finish the season.”
However, these are surly, talented, veteran opponents in the middle of the cutthroat playoff hunt. Just because the games are at home, no Hornet expected them to be easy, certainly not Williams, who knows better than anyone his team’s state.
And Monday, the Hornets were playing the second game of a back-to-back after coming off a road trip. However, as they get ready to play the Boston Celtics (36-30) at 7 p.m. Wednesday, it brings the question: Do the Hornets have enough left in the tank to finish this season on an encouraging note?
Williams canceled the team’s shootaround Monday morning after a tough two-point loss at Minnesota, and Tuesday’s practice was canceled also after the Warriors stepped on the gas and sped away at the end against a fatigued team.
Wiping out practice after back-to-back games, however, is a typical routine for Williams and the Hornets.
“(Point guard) Greivis (Vasquez) has been playing 40 minutes a game, and we have some other guys who’ve played a lot of minutes and have some (injury) issues,” Williams said. “That’s the NBA. But that’s why it’s best we back off a little.”
Against the Celtics, the Hornets will be playing a team that is coming off a gut-wrenching 105-103 loss to Miami that enabled the Heat to stretch its winning streak to 23 games, second-most in NBA history. The Celtics had a chance to win at the end, but All-Star small forward Paul Pierce missed a last-second 3-point attempt.
That it ended an 11-game home winning streak, against an opponent they would like to think they have a chance to beat in the playoffs, cannot sit well with the Celtics.
And they are set to meet a team that defeated them 90-78 in Boston on Jan. 16 in which they were beaten on the boards to the tune of 48-33 and shot a miserable 6-of-16 on free throws.
The Celtics — who are 16-7 since point guard Rajon Rondo’s injury on Jan. 25 — come to New Orleans to play an inexperienced team lacking in talent and with a roster depleted by injuries.
Every game is magnified because the Celtics, currently tied for the Eastern Conference’s sixth playoff spot, are in a four-team battle to gain the fourth position and the all-important first-round homecourt advantage that comes with it.
Small forward Ryan Anderson said the Hornets, who have lost seven of their past eight games, said being back at home, competition level notwithstanding, is key.
“The road was tough, physically and mentally,” he said. “It’s nice to be playing before our hometown, to get some good rest, get our bodies right, our minds right.
“After Golden State, we don’t have any back-to-backs in this next stretch of games. Little things like that, we should be able to take advantage of, getting a little more sleep, getting extra practice, which will be good for us.”
The disappointing 3-12 record since the All-Star break, compounded by the season-ending injuries to power forward Jason Smith and rookie guard Austin Rivers, have eaten at the Hornets’ confidence, Anderson said. That’s why, he said, these games are huge.
“With this atmosphere (around the Hornets), winning is the only thing that’s going to solve everything,” he said. “We’ve lost so many tough games. We’re hungry to win.
“This team has been through so much, just learning to play the right way. And if we can play like that at the end here and play for 48 minutes, it could show this group a lot and how good we can be. So, I’m confident we’ll have a strong last stretch.”