NEW ORLEANS – Chris Paul has the New Orleans Hornets in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
Paul had 28 points and 10 assists, and the Hornets clinched a playoff spot with a 101-93 victory over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night.
Trevor Ariza, acquired by the Hornets from Houston in an offseason trade, scored 19 for a second straight game and tied a season high with six steals.
Jarrett Jack added 19 points, while seventh-year pro Emeka Okafor, who's never been to the playoffs, added 11 points to help rookie coach Monty Williams get there with a far shorter wait.
Kevin Martin scored 21 for Houston, which is now on the brink of elimination. Luis Scola added 16 points, including a jumper that had Houston as close as 95-93 with a minute left before the Hornets pulled away with six free throws.
The Hornets, who trailed by as much as 17 in the first half, held the Rockets to 6 of 17 shooting in the third quarter and eventually took their first lead when Marco Belinelli's 3 made it 66-63 with 5:02 left in the period. The basket was part of an 11-0 run — the Hornets' third double-digit run in a wild, back-and-forth game — that put New Orleans up 70-63.
After that, the game got tight — and physical — with Brad Miller earning a flagrant foul when he smacked Jason Smith in the mouth, drawing blood, on Smith's fast-break dunk attempt.
Following a couple minutes of treatment to stop the bleeding, Smith made two free throws to make it 74-69, then Patrick Patterson made a pair of free throws for Houston to make it 74-71 heading into the final period.
Goran Dragic also had 16 points for Houston, hitting 4-of-5 3s, the last of which started a 5-0 spurt that put the Rockets up 86-81 with 6:45 to go.
Paul then checked back into the game and immediately hit a floater as he was fouled. Ariza then hit a floater off the glass for one of six ties in the fourth quarter, then Paul got his 10th assist when he set up Jack's transition 3 from the corner.
Houston tied it once more, at 89, on Martin's fast-break layup as he was fouled, then the Hornets took the lead for good on Paul's free throws and Ariza's steal and fast-break dunk.
Houston still had one more chance to tie the game with 11 seconds left, but Kyle Lowry's driving floater rolled off the rim and a long rebound was tipped out to Jack, who was fouled and made both free throws.
Early on, it appeared Houston might run the Hornets out of their own building.
Chuck Hayes scored two quick inside baskets, sparking a 10-0 run that had home fans grumbling as they stood for more than 3:40 on the game clock while adhering to a tradition of not sitting until the Hornets score.
New Orleans didn't score until Ariza's slashing layup with 8:13 remaining in the opening period, but the basket didn't slow the Rockets, who led 20-4 when Chase Budinger slammed down an alley-oop lob from Lowry.
The Hornets, who'd started 0 for 7 from the field, hit eight of their next 10 shots, and got back to 22-17 when Ariza's transition jam on a feed from Paul capped a 9-0 run.
The Rockets then strung together another 10-0 run, highlighted by Martin's runner as he was fouled, and Houston took a 38-21 lead at the end of the first quarter, which tied the most points allowed by the Hornets in any quarter this season.
New Orleans clawed back to within single digits with a 10-0 run that included transition dunks by Smith and Ariza. Then Houston seized the momentum yet again with accurate perimeter shooting. Goran Dragic hit his first three shots — all 3s — during a 13-4 spurt that put Houston back up 53-37.
Then the momentum changed once again, with Ariza and Paul both hitting 3s during an 11-0 Hornets run late in the second quarter. Soon after, Jack added 3 with less than a second to go as the Hornets closed the period on a 14-2 spurt that pulled them to 55-51 at halftime.
Notes: Houston was 8 of 16 on 3s in the first half alone. Then went 1 for 8 in the second half. ... The Hornets made 10 of their 13 steals in the second half. ... The Hornets have now made the playoffs in five of their nine seasons since moving to New Orleans from Charlotte. ... The Hornets are 27-12 at home and 9-5 against the Southwest Division. ... Martin, the Rockets' leading scorer, has 55 20-point games this season.