Sean Gardner/Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS – Eric Gordon’s rustiness from a three-month layoff showed up in the form of two early airballs and misses on his first four shots.
Too bad for the Denver Nuggets that Gordon maintained his knack for scoring in the clutch.
Gordon scored 15 points in his first action in his return, capping the performance with two free throws in the final seconds to lift the New Orleans Hornets to a 94-92 victory over the Nuggets on Wednesday night.
“It feels good,” said Gordon, who had not played since Jan. 4 because of a right knee bruise that required arthroscopic surgery. “I just looked forward to winning, and my individual game will come as far as stat-wise.”
Trevor Ariza scored 15 points, and Chris Kaman added 14 points and 10 rebounds for New Orleans. The Hornets had six players score in double figures, including all five starters.
“That’s good team basketball right there. You really can’t script it much better than that,” said Hornets forward Jason Smith, who had 10 points and made a steal on the final play to prevent Denver from getting off one final shot for the win or tie. “(Wednesday night) was an overall team win.”
Ty Lawson scored 22 points for Denver, which tied it at 92 on Al Harrington’s 3 from the corner with 10 seconds left, only to see Gordon bait Arron Afflalo into a foul on an up-fake near the lane with 2 seconds left.
Although Gordon was 3 of 11 from the field, he said there was no doubt in his mind he would find a way to put the Hornets back in front.
“I knew I was going to get the ball at the top of the key. It was just all about making a play,” Gordon said. “(Afflalo) was guarding me pretty good, but when I was obviously getting ready to attack the basket, he was so close up to me, I knew a pump-fake would probably have him up in the air.”
Afflalo finished with 15 points and a career-high seven assists, and Harrington scored 14 points, but Denver was outrebounded 41-32 and allowed New Orleans to shoot 52 percent (35 of 67).
“Our defense broke down in the second half,” Denver coach George Karl said. “Protecting the paint was very poor.”
New Orleans surged into the lead, never to trail again, when Kaman hit a jumper and Smith scored twice during a 6-0 run to open the third quarter.
Soon after, Gordon hit a 3 and added a free throw to give New Orleans a 55-48 lead.
Denver pulled as close as 59-58 on Harrington’s fast-break layup after one of New Orleans’ 19 turnovers, but the Hornets wound up making nine of their first 11 shots in the quarter, including Gordon’s driving layup and 3 in succession that made it 68-59.
The Hornets matched their largest lead when Gordon’s free throw made it 86-75 with 6:51 to go, but New Orleans then went into a shooting slump, missing nine of its last 11 shots.
Afflalo started Denver’s comeback, scoring inside as he was fouled for a three-point play. Kenneth Faried dunked and followed that with a three-point play of his own on a reverse layup.
Denver closed to 89-87 on Jordan Hamilton’s reverse layup before Ariza’s free throw and Kaman’s putback gave New Orleans a late 92-87 lead.
“It was a tough loss, but we fought back,” Hamilton said. “We just came up short.”
The Nuggets played most of the fourth quarter without Andre Miller, who was ejected when he was called for a flagrant-2 foul on Carl Landry. Miller threw a forearm into Landry’s ribs under the basket as the New Orleans forward tried to finish a fast break.
“Andre getting thrown out of the game was a big (problem) for us,” Karl said. “He had a very good game going.”
Landry, who remained in the game, stayed down on the baseline for several minutes while officials confirmed the call on video review.
“I’m fine,” Landry said. “It was a hard foul, and I just took my time getting up.”
Landry finished with 12 points, while Greivis Vasquez had 11 points and 10 assists.
Faried had 13 points for the Nuggets.
After making only two of their first 16 shots and falling behind by 11 in the first quarter, the Nuggets shot 17 of 24 for the rest of the first half.
Lawson scored twice, and Afflalo hit a 3 as Denver used an 11-0 run to tie it at 18 late in the first quarter.
Denver would up taking lead in the second quarter, though never by more than 3 points, and led 46-45 going into halftime.