By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
January 11, 2013

The return of Eric Gordon to the court on Dec. 29 has given the New Orleans Hornets a fresh start to the 2012-13 regular season, as the midway point of the 82-game schedule approaches. After beginning the campaign just 6-23 without their best player, the Hornets have posted four wins in Gordon’s five appearances, including a three-game winning streak. Dating back to last season, the Hornets have won 10 of the first 14 games in which Gordon has played.

The Hornets will attempt to continue their much improved play of late on Friday evening, when they host the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Western Conference battle is the second matchup of the season between the Hornets and Timberwolves. Exactly four weeks ago on Dec. 14, Minnesota came into New Orleans on a Friday evening and posted a 113-102 margin of victory.

While the Hornets were thrilled to recently receive a clean bill of health, the Timberwolves’ medical record has been headed in the opposite direction. Already without key swingmen Chase Budinger (out 3-4 months, knee surgery) and Brandon Roy (out indefinitely, knee surgery), All-Star power forward Kevin Love is now gone until March after he broke his right ring finger on Jan 3. In addition, rising second-year point guard Ricky Rubio has been in and out of the mix with back spasms. As a result, the Timberwolves have had to make do with a shorthanded lineup that is missing several key components.

Intriguing matchup: Small forward, Al-Farouq Aminu vs. Andrei Kirilenko
During the Timberwolves’ Dec. 14 victory in the Crescent City, Kirilenko held the clear upper hand, frequently cutting behind Aminu to the basket for layups and close-range baskets. Kirilenko finished the game with 21 points (on 10-for-16 shooting) and 11 rebounds. Aminu registered six points and eight rebounds. After a recent stretch in which his playing time diminished, Aminu has bounced back with a few stellar performances, highlighted by a 10-point, 13-rebound game in Saturday’s overtime win at Dallas.

Overview
In their quest to qualify for the Western Conference playoffs for the first time since 2004, the Timberwolves are 16-16, ranking them 10th in the Western Conference standings. With West upstarts such as Golden State, Houston and Portland playing better than virtually all preseason projections, a .500 record almost certainly won’t be enough for any club to make the playoffs. As a result, the Timberwolves are in a precarious position, with several major contributors in the midst of dealing with injury concerns. Minnesota’s visit to the Big Easy is part of an extremely difficult four-game road trip.

What’s new
Minnesota made two excellent offseason acquisitions of international players, adding third-leading scorer Andrei Kirilenko and rookie guard Alexey Shved, the team’s seventh-leading point producer. Both players are natives of Russia. The Timberwolves also picked up Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy, but the wings are out of action due to recent knee surgery. Hard-working power forward Dante Cunningham has been pressed into larger duty by injuries.

Star Player
Two-time All-Star power forward Kevin Love is Minnesota’s franchise player, a rugged yet skilled model of versatility. Unfortunately for the UCLA product, 2012-13 has been brutal health-wise. Love’s first game of the season was delayed until Nov. 21 by a broken right hand; after playing in 18 games, he then fractured a finger the same shooting hand and is sidelined again. Clearly hampered by the injury, Love’s normally accurate shooting touch has dipped to 35 percent from the field and 22 percent from three-point range this season.
On the rise
In the Dec. 14 home game against the Timberwolves, the Hornets received an up-close glimpse at how much third-year center Nikola Pekovic has improved individually. The burly 6-foot-11, 290-pounder racked up a career-high 31 points, repeatedly scoring in the paint. The native of Montenegro finished 14-for-18 from the field. As a rookie, Pekovic was a bit player for the Wolves, averaging 5.5 points, but he has increased that statistic to 13.9 and 15.9 in the last two seasons.

X-factor
Jose Barea was one of six Timberwolves to tally double-digit scoring against the Hornets on Dec. 14 and the lone Minnesota reserve to do so, with 12 points. Barea and Shved often deliver clutch play for the Wolves in the fourth quarters of games. A native of Puerto Rico, Barea helped spark the Dallas Mavericks’ run to the 2011 NBA championship.

On the sideline
After going just 15-67 and 17-65 in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, Minnesota hired Rick Adelman as its head coach, in the hopes that the veteran leader could quickly turn the Timberwolves into a playoff team. Unfortunately for Adelman, the Wolves have sustained more bad injury luck than any NBA team since he’s been at the helm. Minnesota went 26-40 in 2011-12, but its playoff hopes were derailed in March by a season-ending injury to Rubio.

Did you know?
Andrei Kirilenko has worn jersey number 47 throughout his NBA career, in part because his initials are A.K., making him known as “AK47.”


Players the Timberwolves want shooting free throws in a close game… If the Timberwolves need a three-pointer, three of their best options are…
Name
Career FT percentage (through Jan. 9)
Luke
Ridnour
86.5
Ten-year pro above 80 percent every season of career.
Kevin
Love
81.3
Two-time All-Star won’t play again until March.
Jose
Barea
80.4
Signed with Wolves after helping Mavs win 2011 NBA title.
Name
Career three-point percentage (through Jan. 9)
Jose
Barea
35.5
Known more for penetrating than perimeter shooting.
Luke
Ridnour
35.4
Shotput-style shooter went 3-for-3 at New Orleans on Dec. 14.
Kevin
Love
35.2
Minnesota ranks last in NBA in three-point percentage.


CATCH ALL THE ACTION LIVE AT THE HIVE! GET YOUR TICKETS NOW!