DALLAS — As far as the New Orleans Hornets are concerned, the season started Saturday night, Jan. 5, with a 99-96 overtime victory over the Dallas Mavericks.
“It kind of is,” said Hornets guard Eric Gordon after his first start of the season and after he scored eight of his 14 points — and the Hornets’ final eight points — in the OT. “We’re still a little bit banged up health-wise and we’re still trying to get there, but I would say this is the type of win that kind of does something for us.”
Hey, 1-0 looks a whole lot better than the 8-and-20-whatever that the official standings will have you believe. But forget the standings when it comes to this scrappy, intruiging group of young kids trying to make it work in NOLA. Even before Saturday night’s big road win, as players dressed and stretched in the visiting locker room, a freshness and exuberance could be sensed.
For one, the 6-foot-3 Gordon was returning to the lineup for just his third game and his first start of the season. He was given the previous game off to rest after playing two games in his long-awaited comeback from a knee injury that followed him to New Orleans from the Los Angeles Clippers in the Chris Paul trade.
And whatever happened with Gordon after the trade, his lingering injury and his Phoenix-or-bust ambitions during the offseason mean nothing now to his growing teammates.
Second, Hornets coach Monty Williams, for the first time this season, trotted out the starting five he envisioned from the start: Emerging point guard sensation Greivis Vasquez, Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Robin Lopez and No. 1 pick Anthony Davis. That quintet’s average age is 22.8 and allows Williams to utilize the 20-year-old Austin Rivers from his rightful spot off the bench.
Vasquez, remarkably the old man of the group in just his third season at age 25, and the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, could barely control his enthusiasm to finally start — and finish — a game next to Gordon, a man of considerable scoring ability.
“What Eric is going to bring to the table is we have been in games without him and now he can close those games out for us,” Vasquez said prior to the game. “He can be our closer. That’s what he does for us.”
Cue the Gordon highlight reel.
After struggling through a rocky shooting night, Gordon rode the coattails of Vasquez’s monster, 15-point fourth quarter that rallied the Hornets to an 89-89 tie after regulation. The underrated Vasquez, stuffing the stat sheet again with 25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and a lone turnover in 41 minutes, had a chance to win in it regulation, but a screen failed to set him free and he never got a clean look as the clock expired.
“He’s for sure underrated and he’s going to be a big-time playmaker,” Gordon said. “He’s definitely underrated and he’s just getting better and better with every game.”
Gordon, unfazed by a 1-for-9 shooting night in regulation, turned the final 1:49 into a clinic of late-game execution. His driving layup cut Dallas’ lead to 94-93. Then he drained a 3-pointer to put the Hornets up 96-94 with 1:18 to go. Mavs forward Shawn Marion tied it at 96-96.
After missing a 3-pointer for the lead with 39.9 seconds to go, Gordon got a reprieve when O.J. Mayo, cold all night, missed a pull-up jumper (plus two earlier open corner 3s in overtime). Gordon went to work on undersized Mavs point guard Darren Collison.
Gordon pump-faked at the top of the circle and Collison bit. Gordon leaned forward, drew contact and heaved a shot that hit the backboard square and dropped in with 4.7 seconds to play. He completed the 3-point play to close it out just as Vasquez envisioned.
“Our record really doesn’t identify who we are,” Vasquez said. “We have been in games and because our inexperience really gets to us, teams have been able to beat us the last two minutes of the game. But it is a learning process. I tell you, we have this vision that we are going to be a great team, and that takes some time. In the NBA, it’s too cruel, it’s cold-blooded. You’ve got to understand that you have to have really a strong mindset because it’s not going to be easy. We’re going through that.”
And on this night they persevered when they could have folded multiple times. After leading 25-19, Dallas bridged the first and second quarters with a 13-0 run. The Mavs led by 11 in the third quarter and with Dirk Nowitzki having made his debut in the starting lineup in his seventh game back, they looked to be salting away a game they desperately needed before embarking on a three-game road trip.
But Nowitzki, who finished with 20 points, would be held to three points on 1-for-5 shooting in the fourth quarter and overtime. Instead it was Vasquez and the 24-year-old Gordon taking charge.
Asked before the game what he hoped to get from his first-time starting five, Williams, the Hornets’ impressive 41-year-old coach said, “Wins.”
He got one. More importantly his young, clawing team finally got rewarded for their effort and got a glimpse for once of what a closer looks like on their own squad. For the first time in the 20th game this season that New Orleans trailed after three quarters, they pulled one out.
“Eric is a player that most people on the East Coast and even here don’t get to see because the Clippers didn’t play on TV as much, or at all when he was there,” Williams said. “But he’s a guy that can score the ball. He can shoot 3s, he can attack the basket, he can get to the free-throw line.”
Gordon did all three in the final 1:49 Saturday night, the first night of the rest of the Hornets’ season.