NEW ORLEANS — The Hornets arrived in Phoenix for Sunday night’s game with the look of a team in turmoil.
They have lost the first two games of their five-game road trip, the last swing of the season. With the team sporting a 26-50 record, the season winding down and coach Monty Williams saying he’s evaluating players but also trying to win, the frustration seemed to come to a boil.
In New Orleans’ 95-83 loss Friday at Utah, Williams and guard Eric Gordon shouted at each other 3½ minutes into the third quarter after Gordon turned the ball over on two of four possessions and didn’t show effort to Williams’ liking getting back downcourt after the second one. Williams was restrained by lead assistant Randy Ayers, and Gordon didn’t play the rest of the game.
Now they’re in Phoenix, where Gordon would have played this season had the Hornets not matched the Suns’ four-year, $58 million offer sheet.
Oddly, Williams had been a staunch supporter of Gordon all season, although he missed the first 29 games with a patella disorder and bruised knee amid media speculation that he was less than genuine concerning the injury. As recently as Tuesday, before the Hornets left for the road trip, Williams was expressing his faith in Gordon.
Williams earlier had said that Gordon will have a breakout season next year, and he was looking forward to crafting summer plans for him.
“The thing that we have to do is manage his rest time and have a full summer with him,” Williams said. “The way I’ve heard it (from doctors) is this summer is really a time for him to heal and get better so that next year he is at a full clip. That’s what we anticipate, and that’s probably why they put these restrictions on him — to get him to the summertime so he can fully recover from the surgery (during last season).”
Asked why he believes in Gordon so passionately, Williams said, “Well, I believe in all of our guys. That doesn’t always mean they’re going to do what I want. I want them to believe in me, just like I believe in them. If that can’t be reciprocated, we can’t walk out on the floor together.”
If there’s even a wee bit of frustration for Gordon, chances are it would not be that much different in Phoenix. The last-place Suns (23-53) have lost eight in a row and 12 of 13.
Friday night’s game against Golden State was a doozy. Suns point guard Goran Dragic scored 32 points on 10-of-11 shooting, including 3-of-4 on 3-point attempts, prompting Warriors coach Mark Jackson to compare him to San Antonio star Manu Ginobili.
Phoenix shot 61.1 percent and outrebounded the Warriors 36-30. But the Suns were done in by 22 turnovers and lost 111-107 before just the second sellout crowd of the season.
If the Hornets can win Sunday, it would give them the season series 2-1 and avenge a 111-108 overtime loss Nov. 23. It also would give New Orleans hope on this road trip: The Hornets play at the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday and end the road trip Wednesday at Sacramento. The Hornets are 2-0 against the Kings this season.
Also, Sunday’s game is the second trip back to face his old team for Hornets center Robin Lopez. Lopez had eight points and seven rebounds in the first meeting, then had 11 points and eight rebounds as the Hornets won 93-84 on Feb. 6, ending a four-game losing streak.
He averaged 5.4 points and 3.3 rebounds mostly in a backup role with the Suns last season, his fourth with them. He is averaging 11.1 points and 5.4 rebounds with the Hornets.
“Robin certainly has had his best season, and it has taken him some time to get used to our system, but he’s never had to play this role since he’s been in the NBA,” Williams said. “So it took him a couple of months to realize he’s the starter.”