By: Jim Eichenhofer,, @Jim_Eichenhofer
December 7, 2012

Over the first five weeks of the 2012-13 regular season, the New Orleans Hornets have played one of the NBA’s most difficult schedules, rarely going up against an opponent below .500 record-wise. The team’s rugged slate comes into focus again this weekend, because over the next 48 hours, the Hornets will face both of the NBA’s top two teams record-wise, the Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat. Following Friday’s difficult Southwest Division tilt vs. the Grizzlies, the Hornets will travel to South Beach for a Saturday game against the Heat.

The Hornets have already played each of the NBA’s other top five teams, dropping games to San Antonio, New York and Oklahoma City (twice).

As a fellow Southwest Division member, Memphis meets New Orleans four times annually during each 82-game campaign. The Grizzlies will return to the Crescent City to visit the Hornets on March 22, while New Orleans travels to Tennessee on Jan. 27 and March 9.

After dropping their Oct. 31 opener at the Los Angeles Clippers, the Grizzlies reeled off eight consecutive victories, including handing New York its first loss on Nov. 16. During that same lengthy winning stretch, Memphis also downed Miami 104-86 and posted one of the most impressive victories by any team early in 2012-13, a 107-97 triumph on Oklahoma City’s home floor.

The Grizzlies and Hornets share a few notable connections, with two current Hornets players having started their NBA careers in Tennessee. Greivis Vasquez and Xavier Henry were both Memphis first-round picks in 2010. Vasquez was traded to New Orleans just days prior to the abbreviated 2011-12 regular season, in exchange for reserve small forward Quincy Pondexter. Grizzlies backup point guard Jerryd Bayless is also a former Hornet, having played briefly for NOLA at the outset of 2010-11.

Intriguing matchup: Small forward, Al-Farouq Aminu vs. Rudy Gay
Two of the NBA’s most athletic players and exciting dunkers will square off in the frontcourt. Aminu was a frequent highlight producer during the Hornets’ 3-2 start to the regular season, but his high-flying opportunities have decreased recently. Aminu and New Orleans will focus on trying to slow down the dynamic Gay, who often finishes Memphis fast breaks with slams. The Hornets will need to play stingy and disciplined defense to have a chance to upset the Grizzlies.

When NBA analysts made their 2012-13 predictions, the Grizzlies were generally an afterthought, with more glamorous Western Conference teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder receiving greater attention. Early in ’12-13, it appears as though ignoring the Grizzlies’ talent and team cohesiveness was a major oversight. Memphis has gone 13-3, good for the best record in the league. Although the Grizzlies may not have as many marquee names on their roster as some of their fellow Western Conference contenders, they’ve shown outstanding on-court chemistry. Memphis’ vaunted frontcourt of Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is now in its fourth season playing together. Point guard Mike Conley has also been with Memphis during that entire timeframe.

What’s new
An underperforming bench proved costly for Memphis in its 2012 first-round playoff defeat to the Clippers. The Grizzlies made improving that unit a priority during the summer and appear to have upgraded their backcourt. Although productive Grizzlies sub O.J. Mayo signed with Dallas in free agency, Memphis added point guard Jerryd Bayless and shooting guard Wayne Ellington. Ellington, who has also filled in as a starter for the injured Tony Allen, poured in a career-high 25 points vs. Miami on Nov. 11, including seven three-pointers. The only other new Grizzly on the roster is rookie point guard Tony Wroten, a first-round pick.

Grizzlies star
Randolph is a nightly double-double threat, averaging about 16 points and 13 rebounds early in 2012-13. The southpaw’s arrival to Memphis in 2009 was heavily second-guessed at the time, but now appears to be one of the biggest turning points in franchise history.
On the rise
Conley is the best individual representation of patience paying off for the Grizzlies in recent years. The Ohio State lottery pick struggled mightily early in his pro career, but in Year 6 has blossomed into an invaluable defender and floor general. Conley is also off to a red-hot shooting start this season.

The Grizzlies’ bench features several steadily improving contributors. Bayless, Ellington and power forwards Marreese Speights and Darrell Arthur are capable scorers, while small forward Quincy Pondexter provides individual defense and spot-up three-point shooting.

On the sideline
Head coach Lionel Hollins guided the Grizzlies to a playoff-series victory in 2011, the first in franchise history. As a player, Hollins was the starting point guard for Portland’s 1977 NBA championship team.

Did you know?
The Grizzlies moved to Memphis from Vancouver in 2001, one year prior to the Hornets’ arrival in New Orleans.

Players the Grizzlies want shooting free throws in a close game… If the Grizzlies need a three-pointer, three of their best options are…
Career FT percentage (through Dec. 6)
Top threat on Grizz team ranked No. 2 in NBA in accuracy.
Hornets traded him in Jarrett Jack deal of November 2010.
Shot career-best 86.1 percent from line last season.
Career three-point percentage (through Dec. 6)
Has methodically improved long-range shooting in six-year career.
Nearly half of his baskets in 2012-13 have been treys.
Not known for outside shot, but off to accurate start this season.