NEW ORLEANS — With his left hand wrapped in a black bandage and cut patched up over his right eye, Chris Paul triumphantly cupped his hand to his ear and soaked in the roars of a packed and delirious New Orleans Arena.
Big Easy basketball fans rejoiced in knowing they would get to see Paul and Co. at least one more time, thanks to the All-Star guard’s first triple-double of the season.
Paul had 27 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds, and the New Orleans Hornets held on for a 93-88 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Easter Sunday to even their first-round playoff series at 2-2.
"Regardless of what happens in this series, it was good to see the city with a smile on their face," said Paul, who hit 7 of 14 shots and all 11 of his free throws. "It was fun, man. I’m just so thankful to get to say this is my way of life."
Paul scored 14 of New Orleans’ 24 points in the fourth quarter. He capped one of the best playoff performances in Hornets history by driving into a crowd of Lakers and turning an aborted shot into a perfect pass to set up Jarrett Jack’s short jumper, which made it 90-86 with 9.3 seconds left.
"I was about to take one of the worst shots I’d taken all game," Paul said. "I thank the Lord I saw Jack out of the corner of my eye."
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 of times and drawing a technical in one of those instances.
Paul said he wasn’t playing mind games. It was just raw intensity — a sort of fuel he was not about to suppress in a game the underdog Hornets had to win to have any realistic chance in this series.
"It’s not by design," Paul explained. "That’s just who I am. I’m not into playing those get-under-your-skin games. Kobe has seen it all. He’s seen guys try to get him ejected and stuff like that. I’m just being me."
By contrast, Bryant did not seem himself. He scored 17 points but was held scoreless in the first half and made only 5 of 18 shots. He also came up lame late in the fourth quarter, favoring his left ankle after a collision with Willie Green.
After soaking his ankle in ice, he 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."
Bryant’s last miss came on a 3-point attempt in the final seconds, and Jack snared the rebound to seal the win.
"Well, it’s a series now," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We punked out there on the court tonight."
The Hornets’ victory ensured the series, which resumes with Game 5 in Los Angeles on Tuesday, would return to New Orleans for Game 6 on Thursday.
The Hornets might still be a long shot to win twice more, but believe they have a chance as long as they have Paul.
"He’s maybe 6 feet and he had 13 rebounds," said Trevor Ariza, who scored 19 for New Orleans. "He played unbelievable. He’s made our team go all year. He’s carried us when we were down."
In addition to playing strong defense on Bryant, Ariza had 16 of his points 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. Carl Landry had 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.NEW ORLEANS — 93
LOS ANGELES — 88
KEY: Chris Paul scored 14 of the Hornets’ 24 points in the fourth quarter, and his triple-double lifted them to victory.
NEXT: Game 5, Hornets at Lakers, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday