NEW ORLEANS — The Houston Rockets tried to rush in through the front door against the New Orleans Hornets on Wednesday.
On Friday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves will try to break in through the back door. The matchup is the last of a three-game homestand for the Hornets, who begin an Eastern swing Sunday.
Like the Rockets in their previous meeting with the Hornets, the Timberwolves tore up New Orleans inside Dec. 14 in New Orleans Arena. Minnesota’s front line of Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Love and Andrei Kirilenko befuddled the Hornets with back-door cuts, receiving passes from guards Luke Ridnour (10 assists), Alexey Shved (eight) and backup point guard Jose Barea (five).
The Timberwolves scored 70 points in the lane during their 113-102 victory, scoring 63 points in the second half.
“They embarrassed us in the second half,” Hornets coach Monty Williams said. “(Points in the paint) are always a concern when you have guards who agitate. And Barea had an unbelievable impact on the game in the fourth quarter.”
Barea came in as a closer of sorts and ran circles around the Hornets with the pick-and-roll. He sat out Wednesday’s game at Oklahoma City, a 106-84 loss, but may return Friday. Primary point guard Ricky Rubio has returned from an ACL injury, and he presents problems not only with his Maravich-style passing but with his scoring.
The Hornets (10-25) are seeking their fourth consecutive victory, which they haven’t accomplished since April 11-16 of last season with a totally different team.
Since beating the Hornets last month, Minnesota is 5-7, with five of those losses on the road. Love, the Timberwolves’ leading scorer (18.3) and rebounder (14.0), fractured his right hand for the second time this season in a Jan. 3 win at Denver and is out indefinitely.
“Obviously they are going to lose something (without Love), but they have more than capable guys to step up,” Williams said. “They’re getting Rubio back, and he went for 30 the last time he played against us, so he was a bigger impact than Love was. We have to stop the Timberwolves.”
The Hornets have done an impressive job of stopping foes of late. On Monday, they held San Antonio, the league’s second-highest scoring team, to 88 points. They did even better Wednesday against the Rockets, slowing the league’s highest-scoring team in an 88-79 victory. Perhaps most impressive was that the Rockets scored only 10 points in the fourth quarter.
“Our activity has been tremendous,” Williams said. “We’re just active on defense, trying to keep the ball out of our paint. Even when the play or strategy doesn’t work out the way you would like it to, guys are so active that you can cover up some mistakes by just using some aggression and energy. Our defense in the fourth quarter (against Houston) is something we can move forward and build on.”
In the teams’ first meeting, the Timberwolves outrebounded the Hornets 40-30. Minnesota’s scheme enabled it to grab 14 offensive rebounds; Pekovic, who had a career-high 31 points, had just five rebounds, but four were offensive.
In that game, Hornets rookie guard Austin Rivers scored a career-high 27 points.