Thunder eases past injury-depleted Hornets 98-84

By JEFF LATZKE

AP Sports Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Since point guard
Chris Paul went out with a knee injury, rookie Darren Collison has been
able to duplicate the All-Star’s production against just about anyone
the New Orleans Hornets play.

Just not the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Kevin Durant scored 29 points,
Russell Westbrook added 17 points and came up just shy of a
triple-double, and the Thunder beat injury-depleted New Orleans 98-83
on Wednesday night.

Collison, who was held to eight
points, has scored in double figures in all but two of the 27 games
he’s started in place of Paul – both meetings against the Thunder. He
also had his streak of seven straight games with at least 18 points and
nine assists snapped. It was the longest string by a rookie since Oscar
Robertson set an NBA record with eight in a row in 1960-61.

“He (saw) a lot of guys when he was
going into the lane, and I think that stopped him from being able to
pass the basketball like he has and score the basketball like he has,
too,” Durant said. “I think it was a good job by Russell and we just
followed his lead.”

The Hornets got off to a hot start in
their latest return to the building they called home for two seasons
following Hurricane Katrina, but it was short-lived with Peja
Stojakovic joining Paul on the team’s injured list.

Stojakovic is expected to miss at
least two weeks with a lower abdominal strain, and the absence of the
team’s most prolific 3-point shooter limited New Orleans’ ability to
spread the floor and create room for Collison.

The first-round draft pick had been
averaging 18.9 points and 8.8 assists in his 26 starts. He finished
with nine assists, but only three after the first quarter when the
Hornets were keeping it close.

“That’s not easy. He’s really been doing some incredible work for being a first-year player,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.

David West scored 33 for the
Hornets, who recorded their highest total of the season two days
earlier in a 135-131 shootout win against Golden State, but struggled
to get anything going except when their power forward had the ball.

West hit his first six shots and was
able to maneuver inside for baskets with regularity, but little else
was working for New Orleans. By the time West was lifted with 7:41 to
play and the Hornets down by 18, he had scored 33 of his team’s 69
points.

Collison and Marcus Thornton, the
rookie tandem that kept the Hornets competitive despite Paul’s absence
following knee surgery last month, combined for 19 points on 7-for-27
shooting in the team’s seventh loss in the last nine games.

“We have to work through this stage
and adjust without Peja on the floor, and that might take a little time
but we’re going to keep moving forward and handle it,” Hornets coach
Jeff Bower said.

Time is quickly running out, though.
New Orleans fell back below .500 and is fading from the playoff race,
now 5 1/2 games behind eighth-place Portland.

“First and foremost, I think we have
to be professionals. We have to come out with the intensity and
concentration that we put in, in terms of a game plan,” West said.
“Come out and try to compete to win a game that we have in front of us,
regardless of who we’re playing.

“It’s going to be difficult for the young guys but it’s going to be a great opportunity to get some experience.”

Oklahoma City had lost 10 in a row
against New Orleans before winning the last two with Paul on the
sidelines. The Thunder have won 15 of 18 to move into a tie with
fifth-place Phoenix in the West.

“We’re not thinking about who we’re
going to be playing against or anything like that, but we’re just happy
to be right now in the playoffs,” guard Thabo Sefolosha said. “We
definitely don’t want to take anything for granted or anything like
that.”

Oklahoma City took the lead for good
in the second quarter and never got much of a challenge in the second
half as New Orleans shot 43 percent.

Westbrook also had nine assists and
eight rebounds, and had those totals entering the fourth quarter. He
didn’t add to either in 4 1/2 minutes of playing time before being
pulled with the game out of hand. He has two career triple-doubles, one
each of the past two seasons.

“It just doesn’t always take your
star players to play well to win,” Brooks said. “The good teams win
because they have good players that can step up if somebody gets hurt.”

NOTES: Bower said the two-week
prognosis for Stojakovic’s return was a “minimum timeframe.” He
expressed hope that Wright, a 2007 first-round draft pick, could use
the extra playing time to build on his game. “It’s full of energy and
athleticism and full of possibilities,” Bower said. “What we need to do
is turn those possibilities into production.” … D.J. White, recalled
by the Thunder from the NBA D-League a day earlier, played for the
first time since Dec. 14. He had surgery to repair a broken right thumb
in January. … Attendance was 18,203 as Oklahoma City recorded its
18th sellout in 31 home games. That matches last season’s total, when
the Ford Center’s capacity was 19,163.

Updated March 10, 2010