NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans Hornets coach Monty Williams sent a message to his team about intensity, benching starting small forward Al-Farouq Aminu for Friday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies at New Orleans Arena.
The message seemed to be well-taken, and the effort was there. However, so were the mistakes. In the end, the Grizzlies, a battle-tested team, came away with a 96-89 victory.
Memphis (14-3), who entered with the best record in the league, got its sixth victory in the past seven games. The loss was the 12th in 15 games for the Hornets (5-13), but there were encouraging signs.
Rookie guard Austin Rivers broke and scored a career-high 13 points. Xavier Henry, who seemed to have lost confidence just a week ago, started in place of Aminu and scored 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting. And backup point guard Brian Roberts continued his stellar play with 15 points, including a big 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter.
Then there was Ryan Anderson, battling toe-to-toe in the paint with a low-post heavyweight, Memphis power forward Zach Randolph, and playing to a draw, both scoring 15 points.
And, most of all, the Hornets exorcised themselves of their third-quarter demons, at least on this night, outscoring the Grizzlies 27-20 in the quarter, a huge reason they had a chance to win at the end.
“We competed, we played hard,” Williams said. “The effort was there. If we had some execution down the stretch, we could have won this game. So while I’m proud of the effort, my heart aches because we didn’t win a game we could have won.”
Memphis received a big lift from Quincy Pondexter, who went to the Grizzlies in the trade that brought Greivis Vasquez to New Orleans. Pondexter came off the bench to score 16 points on 6-of-6 shooting, 4-of-4 on 3-pointers.
Rudy Gay led Memphis with 28 points. Most damaging, though, was the Grizzlies beat the Hornets up on the boards, outrebounding them 46-29.
“(Gay) has been playing well, but tonight he made his shots, and that’s exactly what we needed,” said Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. “He and Quincy had very good games.”
The Hornets still had their chances, though, but missed on several opportunities.
New Orleans closed to 86-85 and trailed 88-85 when Jason Smith missed missed a 10-foot runner. Memphis’ Marc Gasol then made a three-point play, doubling the lead.
A jumper by Rivers brought New Orleans to 91-87, but Gay sank a back-breaking 3-pointer to push the lead to 94-87 at 2:10 and the Hornets didn’t recover.
When the Hornets went into halftime trailing 51-39, Memphis already had bruised them in the rebounding department, 26-15.
Vasquez and Roger Mason got New Orleans started in the third with a steal and 3-pointer on the fast break, and the Hornets climbed back soon after at 55-50.
Gay then made a succession of plays on both end of the court, spurring Memphis. When he backed Henry — who is three inches shorter — into the lane for a three-point play, the Grizzlies led 67-54 at the 4:06 mark.
But the Hornets didn’t fold. Rivers hit a big 3-pointer that was the key shot in a run that brought New Orleans to 69-63 at 1:36. Roberts knocked in a deep, gutsy 3 with 1.7 seconds left, and the Hornets had closed to 71-66 and gotten the crowd into it.
A knock-down, drag-out fourth quarter followed, but when Gay and Pondexter weren’t knocking down big shots, it seemed the Grizzlies came up with an offensive rebound.