With 6:25 seconds left in the first half of Sunday night’s showdown between the Hornets and the Pacers, Chris Paul fell to the floor clutching his surgically-repaired left knee. Though the Hornets were already up 40-28, the silent hometown crowd could feel its playoff hopes slipping away.
New Orleans had just dropped a crucial Southwest Division matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, and the surging Houston Rockets were only three games behind the Hornets in the race for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.
“I knew that it was his surgically-repaired knee, and we just went through that situation with David [West],” Paul’s backup and six-year veteran Jarrett Jack said after the game. “Just seeing him on the ground, it’s never anything good.”
Fortunately for the Hornets faithful, Paul’s injury, apparently caused by a collision with Indiana forward Greg Foster, was not nearly as severe as it first appeared. Paul reentered the game with 3:38 left in the half to a standing ovation. He proceeded to either score or assist on New Orleans’ next four possessions, leading the Hornets to a 57-44 halftime advantage.
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Despite a lackluster fourth quarter, the Bees were able to hold on to a relatively easy 108-96 victory. Paul’s return provided a definite spark.
“That was big for us, man,” shooting guard Willie Green said. “We all took a deep breath after he went down, not knowing what the situation was going to be. It was a good sign to see him moving his knee and moving around a little bit, and when he checked back in the game everybody was happy he was going to be able to finish it out.”
After Friday’s lackluster performance, the Hornets knew they had to regain momentum to hold onto their playoff hopes.
“We dissected the film,” shooting guard Willie Green said. “We saw where we weren’t swinging the basketball the way we needed to. Our defense wasn’t picking up the floor, it wasn’t hungry and aggressive. Like Coach [Monty Williams] said earlier, we’re a defensive team. Every time we get away from playing defense like we’re capable of, we’re not going to give ourselves a chance to win the game.”
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Jack echoed these sentiments.
“We know we can’t divert from the plan,” Jack said. “It’s going to take every guy in the locker room. It’s not going to be two, three guys or one guy carrying us every night. It’s going to have to be a collective effort every single night.”
Despite the injury scare, Paul played one of his better games in recent memory, scoring 18 points and dishing out 8 assists in only 29 minutes on the floor.
“I was just trying to be a little more aggressive tonight and pick my spots,” Paul said after the game.
His effort was not lost on his teammates.
“That guy’s a warrior, man,” Green said. “I could go on and on about him. He’s been our leader all year. He plays with nicks and bumps and bruises that nobody ever sees, but he brings it every game.”
“He’s a very resilient, tough, gritty player”, Jack added. “Even if he can’t really go, he’s going to say he can and try anyway. I’m glad he went out there, was careful, but was still able to finish the game strong.”
The Hornets also got a strong contribution from swingman Trevor Ariza, who scored 20 points and grabbed 9 rebounds while playing solid defense on Danny Granger.
“Trevor is one of those guys that we look to,” Paul said. “When he’s aggressive on both the offensive and defensive end I think everybody tries to do the same.”
The Hornets will have an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth Wednesday night, as they host their division rival Houston. The surging Rockets, however, have won 8 of their last 10.
“It should be an exciting game, knowing what’s at stake for both teams,” Paul said. “Houston is playing outstanding lately, so it’ll be a big game for us.”