THE NEW ORLEANS Hornets started the season as one of the hottest teams in the NBA, winners of 11 of their first 12 games.
Since then, they've been mediocre.
Yesterday, against the 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center, they were downright putrid.
The Hornets converted just one of 21 shots from the field during the second quarter and went a span of 8 minutes, 14 seconds without a field goal, paving the way to an easy 88-70 win for the Sixers.
Just how bad were the Hornets? In the first half they were 6-for-42 from the field for a paltry 14.3 percent. For the game, they finished with a franchise-low four assists on 24 made field goals. Also, Chris Paul led them with 25 points - the only player in double figures. He shot 8-for-12 from the floor, while the rest of the team made just 16 of 67 (23.9 percent).
Easing through games isn't something the Sixers can afford to do - if they want to win many. But they glided effortlessly through this one, improving to 8-15 with their sixth win in seven home games and their fifth victory in the past seven, overall.
"You don't know what to expect from a noon start," said coach Doug Collins. "I'm always concerned about energy. I thought we came out and did a great job defensively, got off to a great, great start. I took a timeout there in the third quarter because I thought we were jackpotting around, but we came out and got our focus back.
"New Orleans had four assists today. We made them play a lot of one-on-one basketball. Because they were struggling to score, Chris Paul was looking to score. And so David West and Trevor Ariza were 4-for-21. Marco Belinelli was 3-for-9."
Said Paul: "We just weren't making shots. We kept settling for outside jump shots instead of attacking the basket. It's been like that for a while. Coach [Monty Williams] told us even in preseason not to fall in love with that jump shot. We've got to figure out ways to score."
The Sixers have been doing just that lately. Yesterday was another exhibition in balanced scoring as Lou Williams led the team with 17 off the bench. Andre Iguodala collected 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, Elton Brand posted his eighth double-double of the season with 15 points and 13 rebounds, and Jrue Holiday had 12 points. Unlike the Hornets, the Sixers shared the ball very well, accumulating 24 assists on their 33 field goals. They also drained seven three-pointers and scored 32 points in the paint.
"So many teams are not going to let you score in the paint, so your big men are going to have to score on pick-and-pop shots," Collins said. "Teams are more and more getting back to protect the paint so, more than anything, you want to get spacing. A lot of times we want Jodie Meeks or Lou on the weak side of the court for us. In this game, if you go side to side and you get back over to that other side you're going to get yourself a good shot. That's what we really concentrate on. That's why we're a high assist team. We're not a great shooting team, but we make the extra pass so we get good, open shots."
Which, along with some very good defense, has been a big reason for the recent success.
"The mentality around the team is great," Brand said. "Five out of seven. We had a lead out in Atlanta, a big lead [in an eventual five-point loss] and a one-point loss the other day [to Boston]. This could have been seven in a row. We would have been one of the most talked-about teams in the league. We are just working hard."
And it's paying off at a good time. After a short trip up the turnpike for a game tomorrow night in New Jersey, the team will return home the next night for a game against the Los Angeles Clippers then host the Lakers on Friday. The next day, they'll be in Orlando to start a stretch of eight straight road games that will include a West Coast swing. If there ever is a time to gobble up some victories, it's now.
It wouldn't hurt if the opponents cooperate as well as New Orleans did.
Jason Kapono and Craig Brackins were deactivated for the Sixers . . . Elton Brand had just seven double-doubles all last season . . . The Hornets scored 23 points in the first half, a franchise low . . . Seven of the Sixers' eight wins have been by double figures. The average margin in their wins is 16 points.
For more Sixers coverage, read the Daily News' Sixers blog, Sixerville, at
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