NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Where the Hornets would be without four-time All-Star Chris Paul is anyone's guess.
With him, they've become a major headache for the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, who won't get out of the first round of the playoffs without playing at least six games and taking another trip back to the Big Easy.
Paul had 27 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds, and New Orleans held on for a 93-88 victory Sunday night that evened their first-round playoff series against the Lakers at 2-2.
``He's maybe 6 feet and he had 13 rebounds,' said Hornets swingman Trevor Ariza, who added 19 points. ``He played unbelievable. He's made our team go all year. He's carried us when we were down.'
Paul played with his left hand wrapped in a black bandage because of a jammed thumb. Later in the game, he received a cut above his right eye. His hustling all-court game, however, was about as attractive as it gets as he recorded his first triple-double of the season.
He mixed it up with players up to a foot taller than him to rip away rebounds. He had a couple of steals. He sliced into the heart of the Los Angeles defense with fancy dribbles, sometimes pulling up to score and other times hitting open teammates for baskets.
In the first half, there was a memorable bounce pass through a crowd of defenders to set up a dunk by Emeka Okafor. In the final seconds of the game, he aborted what initially looked like a driving floater and found Jarrett Jack for a short jumper to give the Hornets a 90-86 lead with 9.3 seconds left.
That assist capped a performance in which Paul went 7 for 14 from the field, hit all 11 of his free-throw attempts and scored 14 of the Hornets' 24 points in the fourth quarter.
``Chris Paul - that was one of the better performances I've seen in the playoffs,' Hornets coach Monty Williams said. ``A lot of guys score. He scored. He assisted. He rebounded.'
With the crowd in a frenzy late in the game, Paul cupped his hand next to his ear, soaking in the appreciation for a performance that bolstered the Hornets' chances of a shocking first-round playoff upset.
``Regardless of what happens in this series, it was good to see the city with a smile on their face,' Paul said. ``It was fun, man. I'm just so thankful to get to say this is my way of life.'
After going scoreless for most of the first half, Paul did it all from midway through the second quarter until the final seconds, even jawing with Lakers star Kobe Bryant a couple times and drawing a technical in one of those instances.
Bryant, meanwhile, did not seem himself, even before hurting his left ankle and foot late in the fourth quarter in a collision with Willie Green. He scored 17 points, but was held scoreless in the first half and made only 5 of 18 shots.
Bryant, who had his left foot and ankle submerged in ice after the game, said the injury appears worse than a sprain of the same ankle earlier this season.
``It's more on my foot,' he said, but added: ``It's going to take a lot to stop me from playing. I've played through so many of them that it kind of becomes old habit.'
The Hornets' victory ensured the series, which resumes with Game 5 in Los Angeles on Tuesday night, would return to New Orleans for Game 6 on Thursday.
``Well, it's a series now,' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. ``We punked out there on the court tonight.'
Jackson also credited Ariza, a former Laker, for his defense on Bryant, as well as his aggression on the offensive end.
Ariza scored 16 in the first half, repeatedly slashing into the paint and once converting a soaring double-pump dunk over Andrew Bynum. His early production prevented the Lakers from pulling away by more than nine in the first half. Carl Landry finished with 16 points for the Hornets before fouling out in the final minute.
Pau Gasol and Ron Artest each scored 16 for Los Angeles, with all of Artest's points coming in the first half. Bynum added 11 points and Derek Fisher 10.
While the Lakers remained confident in their ability to bounce back from their latest surprising setback against feisty New Orleans, Bryant said they would have to deal with the fact that there would be times when Paul is tough to contain.
``He's going to have games like this,' Bryant said. ``The majority of the game, he's just a phenomenal player.'
NOTES: Bryant and Paul were the last starters for each of their teams to score. Paul didn't score until he hit a driving layup with 1:03 left in the second quarter. Bryant, who was 0 for 7 in the first half and missed a technical free throw, finally scored with 9:28 left in the third quarter. ... The last time Bryant went scoreless for a half in a playoff game was May 25, 2004, against Minnesota. Bryant finished with 22 points and the Lakers won. ... Bryant hit seven free throws to become the Lakers' leader in playoff free throws made with 1,216, passing Jerry West, who had 1,213.
The Associated Press News Service
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