NEW ORLEANS — Jason Smith sat at his locker, both knees wrapped in ice.
His right shoulder, too, was swaddled in athletic wrap keeping ice on it.
They say basketball is finesse sport, one in which the quick and athletic survive.
Friday night, the Hornets proved that not to be the case.
Focusing on the area around the basket and Minnesota’s Nikola Pekovic, the Hornets pounded the inside and outrebounded the Timberwolves and outscored them in the paint en route to a come-from-behind 104-92 win at the NOrena.
The Hornets held Minnesota (16-17) to just 40 points inside – 35 less than a month earlier - and Pekovic to 18 points, 13 fewer than he had in December.
“That was key for us,” said Smith, who scored 14 points on 7 of 8 shooting. “They got 70 points in the paint in the last game. Pekovic killed us. We really just tried to keep him out of our paint as best as we could.”
And now Smith and the Hornets are on a four-game win streak, a season best. A young team is growing up.
“It was a good home-stand for us,” Smith said. “We played hard. We played the right way. We have to continue to do that. We cannot be satisfied.”
New Orleans began the season searching for an identity without guard Eric Gordon, who missed the first seven weeks while rehabilitating his knee. In that time, New Orleans went 6-24.
But since his return, the Hornets are 5-1 and confidence is slowly building.
Against Minnesota, it culminated in a 12-point victory.
It almost didn’t, though.
The Timberwolves broke out to a 29-14 first-quarter lead, shooting 55 percent with more than half of their made baskets coming inside the paint.
For the next two quarters, however, the Hornets shut down a short-handed Timberwolves team missing six players due to injury and their head coach, who remained in Minnesota to be with his sick wife.
New Orleans outscored its opponent 56-32 in the second and third, allowing it to coast after coming back from a one-time 18-point deficit.
“They did turn it up defensively and they started making shots and we didn’t,” Minnesota assistant coach Terry Porter said. “It seemed like at times some guys had some heavy legs and it is what it is.”
The Hornets were able to pick up the double digit win in spite of taking just nine free throws, the fourth-fewest in franchise history, while watching as Minnesota went 28 of 33 from the charity stripe.
The difference was the bench; New Orleans’ scored 45 points while Minnesota’s had just 14.
“We go out there and play hard,” Smith said. “We know as a bench we have to bring a spark. I think I’ve said it multiple times now. We have to go out there to keep a lead, increase a lead or just not give up a lead. We never want to go out there and have the lead diminish when you’re out there. It doesn’t buy you more playing time in coach’s eyes.”
Greivis Vasquez had 18 points and 13 assists and Ryan Anderson added 15 points off the bench for New Orleans.
The Hornets now head to New York to face one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams to begin a three-game road trip to the Northeast.
They’ll play three teams – the Knicks, Celtics and 76ers – that won’t afford them the ability to play a poor first quarter only to escape with a win.
“That is what young teams go through,” Hornets coach Monty Williams said, “the day in and day out grind of the NBA. It’s hard to get your mental focus up and a lot of times, young guys just can’t do it.”
For one week, at least, the Hornets are on top of the world.