By Peter Finney Jr., The Sports Xchange
NEW ORLEANS - For most of this season, the New Orleans Hornets have battled NBA opponents while playing blindfolded and bound in a suffocating offensive straitjacket. Injuries, especially to your best player, can make life a misery.
But now the Hornets have seen what life is like with a healthy and cold-blooded scorer like Eric Gordon, and life is very good indeed.
Gordon, who missed the first two months of the season with a lingering right knee injury and played only nine games in the entire previous season, exploded for 12 of his game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter Monday night to lift the Hornets to a 95-88 victory over the San Antonio Hornets.
It wasn't just that Gordon hit every tough jumper down the stretch after going just 3-of-11 from the floor in the first half. More important was the message the tunnel-vision shooting guard has sent to the NBA in helping the Hornets (9-25) to a 3-1 record with him back in the lineup: Look out, New Orleans finally has a closer.
"That's one of the key things I do best," Gordon said. "When it comes to late-game situations or if anything gets tough, I like to take guys one-on-one, and I'm able to get a shot off and get a good shot. I like to create my own shot. I look forward to that. I love those situations."
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich doesn't mince words when it comes to good players. He always defers to Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker when people ask him to explain the Spurs' perennial success.
Popovich sees something special in Gordon, who has averaged 18.3 points in his four games back, including several key baskets down the stretch in an overtime victory Saturday night in Dallas.
"He's really good," Popovich said. "He's a hell of a player. That makes a difference.
"They've been playing all year under-manned and injured and they've done a great job of keeping the faith and busting their butts every night. So, when they do get everybody back, they have an idea of how hard they have to play. And then you're rewarded. That's what's happening. I'm happy for them."
The Hornets held the Spurs, the NBA's third-leading offensive unit, to 45.3 percent shooting and forced 19 turnovers. They frustrated Duncan at times. Duncan was just 5-of-14 from the field and missed five consecutive shots in the third quarter before sitting out the entire fourth period to finish with 13 points.
"Obviously, we wanted to get the ball out of his hands and frustrate him a little bit," said forward Ryan Anderson, who fronted Duncan on every opportunity. "Obviously, that's Tim Duncan, and you're not going to completely stop him, but frustrating him and being around him was the key tonight."
After San Antonio had closed the gap to 78-75 with 7:25 left, Gordon hit mid-range jumpers on four of the Hornets' next five possessions, and New Orleans extended its lead to 90-79 with 2:28 left.
Ginobili led the Spurs (27-10), who have lost six of their last eight road games, with 21 points.
Gordon struggled from the field in the first half, hitting just 3 of 11, but he broke down the Spurs' defense by repeatedly driving to the basket and forcing fouls to score 12 first-half points. Gordon made all six of his foul shots as the Hornets took a 49-41 halftime lead.
Anthony Davis struggled to score in the previous four games, averaging just 7.3 points, but he finished with 17 points and nine rebounds.
"Coach Monty (Williams) has been trying to get me to play like this for the last four or five games," Davis said. "He said I had hit the rookie wall. I kinda took that personally, so I decided to go out there and play with a lot of energy from the jump."
Hornets coach Monty Williams said he was most pleased that his team had competed hard for all four quarters.
"I would imagine there is something building here, but at the same time, it's still early in the season," Williams said. "You don't want confidence to become arrogance, because if you look at our record, we have no right to be anything else but desperate."
But they have a cold-blooded scorer, and because of that, they have hope.
NOTES: Greivis Vasquez added 14 points and 11 assists for the Hornets, and Al-Farouq Aminu had 10 boards and three steals. ... Popovich continued to sound the alarm about "Beergate" at Madison Square Garden last Thursday night. Spurs forward Stephen Jackson sprained his right ankle while tripping over a courtside waitress, who was on her knees taking a drink order near New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "I call it the 'Mayoral Mishap,'" Popovich said. "It's something that is a concern for all of us, obviously -- just like the end lines with all the cameras. It seems logical that in arenas, while the play is going on, you try to order a little less beer. When the play stops, go order whatever you want. While the play is going on, it would be nice to have all those lanes kind of free." ... NBA Hall of Fame forward Bob Pettit, who played at LSU, attended the game as the guest of Hornets owner Tom Benson. Popovich said it would be difficult to compare Tim Duncan to Pettit. "Pettit and Duncan would be two names that would definitely be brought up in the conversation as the best ever, that's for sure," Popovich said. Do his current players even know who Pettit is? "I bring up names way after him that my team has no clue who they are," Popovich said. "Bob Pettit -- there's no shot there."... Williams said Gordon's passing ability is an often-overlooked asset of the guard's overall game. "He's so good at scoring the ball that they don't realize how well he passes until he does it," Williams said.