Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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NEW ORLEANS Austin Rivers has a hard time remembering the bleak days of December, a dark month for the Hornets that included an 11-game losing streak.

He hardly recognizes the team that, through Dec. 22, was 5-22 and in the running for worst team in the NBA.

'It is hard because of the way we've been playing,' Rivers said. 'We're playing pretty good now so when you look at that, one, it shows how strong we are mentally.'

Indeed they are.

The Hornets have won 14 of 26 games played since that low point. While not in the running for the playoffs New Orleans would need to win no fewer than 22 of the final 29 games to end the season at .500 the Hornets could become the team that no contender wants to play.

Wednesday night, in their final game prior to the All-Star break, New Orleans picked up its largest margin of victory this season, a 99-63 win over Portland. The Hornets have won four of their past five games and are playing some of their best basketball of the season.

Against the Trail Blazers, the Hornets came through with their best defensive effort of the season, harrying Portland into 32 percent shooting and season low's for opponents for points in the first half (26) and game (63).

In four of the past six games they've forced at least 16 turnovers.

Yet, coach Monty Williams is fine with the timing of the break.

'Obviously when you're winning games you want to keep it going but it's a good time for us to take a break,' Williams said. 'We've had a tough schedule, maybe the toughest in the NBA. For us to take a break right now is a good thing.'

In assessing his team after 53 games, Williams said he believed there were more ups and downs for one of the NBA's youngest teams.

'From a team standpoint I think that we are moving in the right direction,' Williams said. 'Obviously for me I'd love to have more wins but from a growth standpoint, I think we're in a good spot.'

That spot is buoyed by a nearly full roster.

Franchise guard Eric Gordon missed the first 29 games while rehabilitating his left knee, which kept him out for most of the 2011-12 season. He has played all but six games since Dec. 29.

Meanwhile, rookie Anthony Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, is settling into his role with the team, averaging 12.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game.

But the biggest breakout star for the Hornets is Greivis Vasquez, who is averaging 13.9 points and 9.4 assists per game, both career highs. Since becoming the team's full time point guard this season, he has embraced being the leader even as just a third-year pro.

'I came far because obviously nobody expected this,' Vasquez said. 'People doubted me and think I'm just doing this out of the blue. To me it's just hard work and a good opportunity. Coach Williams has really given me a good chance to develop myself and I'm just taking advantage of that.'

Like Vasquez, the Hornets have come along. Beginning Tuesday with a home game against Chicago, the Hornets have 29 games to prove that they're heading in the right direction.

'At the end of the day, I think we're competing really hard,' forward Lance Thomas said. 'I think we're showing that we actually have toughness and that we can put ourselves in a position to win any game if we play that way.'

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