MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - After slumping into the All-Star break, the New Orleans Hornets have buzzed back.
With Emeka Okafor patrolling the paint again, they pushed around the Minnesota Timberwolves with a tenacious performance that even had coach Monty Williams calling a couple of his players pit bulls for their scrappy effort off the bench.
Trevor Ariza scored 18 points, making four 3-pointers, and Chris Paul had 17 points and eight assists to help the Hornets hand the Timberwolves their seventh straight loss, 95-81 on Friday night.
``They've got some defenders there, some nasty players, and they just started playing some real tough, physical basketball,' Wolves coach Kurt Rambis said.
With leading scorer and starting power forward David West away from the team following a sudden death in his family, the Hornets didn't flinch. They welcomed Okafor back, broke in Carl Landry and reversed their recent trend of leaky defense with a relentless effort against the frustrated Wolves.
``It was a team effort,' Okafor said. ``Everybody was just in the flow. Me personally, it was good to get out there and stretch my legs a little bit, get back in game shape.'
The Wolves beat the Hornets twice previously this season with what Williams called superior mental and physical toughness, but that all belonged to the visitors in this game. The Wolves had 21 turnovers, and the Hornets matched their season high with nine blocks.
``We don't have somebody that's going to step up and kind of take over and give them confidence and hold onto things,' Rambis said. ``When you look at Chris Paul on their team, that's who that is. Everybody believes and trusts and understands what he can do for them.'
Said the All-Star Paul, who appears back to his pre-knee injury form: ``I feel like I have my legs a little bit right now. I'm playing without that brace. I feel like I have a little burst of speed here and there, and I know it opens up everybody else when I'm putting pressure on people.'
Okafor gives the Hornets a certain confidence, too, as Michael Beasley - who finished 4 for 16 from the floor - was reminded when his dunk attempt was rejected by the 6-foot-10 Okafor in the second quarter.
``Two weeks ago, the other day, that was a dunk and a game changer,' Williams said. ``Tonight, he's the kind of guy you don't appreciate until he's not there. Now that he's back, I know Chris and all the guys understand his value.'
Still second in the NBA in scoring defense at 92.8 points per game, the Hornets weren't the same without Okafor, who missed 10 straight games because of a strained left hip. They gave up 100-plus points in eight of their previous 12 games and lost nine of 11 before All-Star weekend arrived.
Okafor had 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots. He lamented some ``easy shots' he missed and rebounds he let get away but was plenty happy with the win.
``It's a huge difference,' Paul said. ``Guys have to think about coming down that paint. Emeka's one of those guys that doesn't let a lot of things come to the rim.'
The Hornets are 16-0 when they give up 86 points or less.
Even when it appeared the Wolves caught a break on a missed dunk in the third quarter by Okafor when he jammed the ball against the side of the rim, they couldn't take advantage of it. Luke Ridnour went the other way and had his layup swatted when the lanky Ariza - no slouch on defense himself - leaped out of nowhere into the lane.
``They just wanted it more than us. They were physical, executed their game plan to a T,' Beasley said. ``Everybody had it going. I think we got a little discouraged in the first half and it just carried over.'
Wes Johnson and Ridnour scored 22 points apiece for the Wolves, who were badgered all game down low and looked as defeated and discouraged as ever in this dismal season.
The highlight for the Wolves came early in the fourth quarter when Kevin Love grabbed his 10th rebound to extend his double-double streak to 45 straight games and pass Moses Malone for the second-longest since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. Malone also had a 51-game run from 1979-80.
But after Love curled up to protect the ball and the crowd cheered, the Wolves couldn't get across half court in eight seconds and were called for a turnover. Love looked livid.
``This is kind of turning into last year, and I hate to say that,' Love said.
Notes: Johnson played 43 minutes with Martell Webster (back problem) and Wayne Ellington (personal issue) out. ... Landry made his Hornets debut with four points and five rebounds. ... Struggling second-year point guard Jonny Flynn was back in action for the Wolves after a three-game absence to rest his surgically repaired hip. He had three turnovers and missed all three shots he took.
The Associated Press News Service
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