NEW ORLEANS (AP) — If it sounds ludicrous to even mention the New Orleans Hornets' remote playoff chances, that's one rookie mistake Austin Rivers is happy to make.
"You never know. We might be able to make the playoffs. That's the only way you can look at it," Rivers said as the Hornets headed into All-Star weekend with a 19-34 record. "Right after All-Star break we have to really be focused. If we can make a run, you never know what can happen, because a lot of teams ahead of us aren't that far ahead."
While Rivers' expectations seem far-fetched, the source of his optimism is evident.
After a dismal 5-22 start, the Hornets have been winning more often than not since late December, around the time second-leading scorer Eric Gordon returned from rehabilitation of his right knee. They've won four of their last five games, and 14 of 26.
It's a trend Portland coach Terry Stotts made note of about an hour before his team was routed by New Orleans, 99-63, on Wednesday night.
"They are a different team with Eric. He can shoot and create shots for others," Stotts said. "They are a much better team than what they were earlier this season. They are a different team than their record shows."
Lately, the Hornets are playing well even when Gordon sits out. They won their past two games by double digits without him. Gordon rested his knee during a 19-point win at Detroit and was supposed to play against the Trail Blazers, but was a late scratch because a right hand injury from the shoot around earlier Wednesday still bothered him.
"Since Eric's come back we've played so much better, and even the games he's been out we're still winning games because now we just believe in ourselves," Rivers said.
At this point, the Hornets would have to make a remarkable run — finishing with 22 victories in their last 29 games — just to get back to .500 by season's end. Even if they pulled that off, it might not be good enough for a postseason berth in the Western Conference. The Hornets will resume the season nine games behind Houston for that final playoff spot.
Hornets coach Monty Williams only hopes his team maintains its recent trajectory.
"We are a team that is moving in the right direction," Williams said. "We're a young team. We've had ups and downs. In my book, more up than down because we play hard every single night — at least we try to. That's tough to get young guys to do."