Okafor leads Hornets to victory in home opener
Who needs the preseason?
Emeka Okafor, a year-round fitness fanatic, missed it and seems to be doing fine.
Chris Paul scored 31 points and Okafor capped another strong performance with two key blocks in the final seconds to help the New Orleans Hornets beat the Sacramento Kings 97-92 on Friday night.
“I’m just happy that I was able to contribute, considering that I didn’t have a preseason, that I could come in, have a couple decent starts and kind of put everybody’s mind at ease,” said Okafor, who came to New Orleans in a trade that sent Tyson Chandler to Charlotte. “It was on my mind, having a decent first impression to just kind of calm everybody’s nerves.”
After sitting out training camp and all eight preseason games with a sprained toe, Okafor returned for the Hornets’ season-opening loss in San Antonio and was one of the bright spots with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
As the Hornets prepared to play their home opener against Sacramento, coach Byron Scott, known for his grueling training camps, smiled when asked what Okafor’s debut told him, replying that his training camp and preseason apparently don’t mean much.
Okafor then more or less went out and proved that very point against the Kings with 11 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks for his second straight double-double. Paul scored 13 of New Orleans’ last 17 points and David West added 13 points for the Hornets.
Tyreke Evans scored 22 points and Kevin Martin added 20 for Sacramento, which led 91-88 on Martin’s running floater off the glass.
Paul then hit the shot of the game, a spinning layin off the glass as he was fouled while absorbing a knee to the groin. After bending over at the waist for a few seconds, Paul went to the line and made the free throw to tie it at 91 with 1:16 to go.
New Orleans led 93-91 on Okafor’s one-handed follow jam of Paul’s missed jumper. Sacramento’s Jon Brockman missed his second of two free throws and Jason Thompson got his 12th rebound to give the Kings another possession, trailing 93-92 with 15.2 seconds left.
Evans dribbled toward the lane, but his mid-range jumper was blocked by Okafor and Paul snagged the loose ball before being fouled and hitting both free throws to make it 95-92 with 5.9 seconds left.
Sacramento then got the ball to Martin for an attempted 3 in the corner and Okafor made another key block. The Hornets quickly got the ball to Paul, who hit two more foul shots.
“It was an unbelievable block by Emeka,” Paul said. “I told him I was going to stay with Kevin, but he actually lost me for a second. Emeka helped me.”
Julian Wright scored 11 points in his new role as a starter and was providing pressure on Okafor’s block of Evans. Peja Stojakovic, now coming off the bench behind Wright, had 10 points.
Andres Nocioni had 16 points for the Kings, who won an NBA-worst 17 games last season and are still looking for their first victory under new coach Paul Westphal.
“I’m very proud of them,” Westphal said. “They proved they can compete. It’s the little things we need to learn as a team. … We were in position to win the game. They closed the deal and we didn’t.”
Sacramento outrebounded New Orleans 52-43, but shot only 37.5 percent (36 of 96), was outscored 26-13 at the free throw line and was held to 30.4 percent shooting in the second half (14 of 46). New Orleans shot 45.2 percent (33 of 73) for the game and had nine blocks.
The Kings led by eight points when Beno Udrih’s 3-pointer capped an 8-2 run late in the third quarter to put the Kings up 73-65. Paul’s driving layup and 3-pointer with a second left in the period helped the Hornets pull to 75-72.
Stojakovic’s second 3-pointer of the game and Darius Songaila’s fadeaway evened the score at 77 with 9:25 left, marking one of 15 ties in the game.
NOTES: Paul is averaging 28.5 points through two games. … Former LSU star Marcus Thornton was inactive for the second time for New Orleans. Scott said that although Thornton is a good shooter, he still has a lot to learn in terms of positional play on both ends of the court. … The Hornets are 6-1 in home openers in the New Orleans Arena. … The Kings play next Saturday night in San Antonio, their third straight road game to open the season before they return home Monday night against Memphis. … The announced attendance was 17,306, officially a sellout.