Mashburn scored 24 points as the Hornets extended their winning streak to a season-high five games with a 94-88 victory over the Nuggets, whose losing streak reached a season-high 11 games.
Mashburn is familiar with first-year Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik from his days in Miami. Bzdelik’s first NBA coaching job was as an assistant under Pat Riley from 1995-2001, and Mashburn played there from 1997-2000 before joining the Hornets in a nine-player deal that also brought over P.J. Brown.
“You have to give a lot of credit to Jeff Bzdelik,” Mashburn said. “I was with him Miami, he’s a great coach for those young guys over there. They came to play hard. I wanted to say that first before anything.
“They have the talent, they’re just young right now. It takes a while for people to get adjusted to the NBA game, knowing what to do in certain situations. … Everybody goes through a growing process and they’re going to be pretty good in about three years if they keep the same pieces together and add a couple more players. Their core unit that they have is going to be pretty good. They have nothing to be ashamed about at all.”
Mashburn, who had averaged 30.3 points in his previous four games, shot just 8-of-24 from the floor. But he also grabbed nine rebounds and his three-point play with 5:17 remaining gave the Hornets the lead for good at 79-76.
“That’s my role in this team,” Mashburn said. “That’s what I have to do and go out there and compete and get people in plays, even if it’s not making shots.”
After Donnell Harvey’s short jumper made it a one-point game at the 4:24 mark, Mashburn made another layup, and the Hornets’ lead never fell below three points thereafter.
The Hornets improved to 7-3 since the All-Star break despite shooting just 38.5 percent (30-of-78), overcoming a sluggish start for the win.
In the opener of a three-game road trip, New Orleans shot just 39 percent (17-of-44) in the first half and found itself in a tight game against the Western Conference’s worst team.
The Hornets appeared ready to pull away when Courtney Alexander hit a pair from the line five minutes into the fourth. But Shammond Williams’ 3-pointer and Howard’s jumper forged a 76-76 tie less than two minutes later.
“This team is battling,” said Bzdelik, whose team has led or been tied in the second half five times in the last eight games. “We just come up short for not any other reason than experience. I’m not going to use that as an excuse, but that’s just the reality of it all. What more can I say? We’re going to keep battling and this thing is going to turn around because we’re so close.”
Denver, which is among the worst offenses in the NBA, managed three baskets by Hilario in the final three minutes. The Hornets countered with 11 free throws and have won five in row for the first time since a seven-game run from March 14-27.
“It’s hard to accept losing when you continue to play well and hard,” said Hilario, who recorded his seventh career double-double. “We have to get past it and move on.”
New Orleans could have pulled away earlier in the second half. After allowing the Nuggets to shoot 46 percent (19-of-41) in the first half, they held Denver to one basket for the first 4:38 of the third and took a 56-50 lead with 7:48 remaining.
“We were sluggish early,” New Orleans coach Paul Silas admitted. “We stepped it up in the third period. Jamal Mashburn was inspired in the third period.”
But behind the experienced Howard, Denver hung tough and took a 67-66 lead into the fourth quarter.