Hornets 101, Rockets 93
Chris Paul stood at the scorer's table, barking advice to Hornets teammates who were trying not to let a game full of playoff implications slip away.
Then the four-time All-Star checked back in, and quickly secured his return to the postseason.
Paul finished with 28 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds, and New Orleans clinched a playoff spot with a 101-93 victory over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night.
''Man, I'm just happy. Most of all, I'm happy I'm healthy,'' said Paul, who missed 37 games last season, the only season in the past four to finish short of the postseason. ''Just the opportunity to go out there and play every night - my fiancee will tell you I'm just happy. I'm a happier person knowing that I'm getting a chance to at least give us a chance.''
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, who's in his sixth season, and seventh-year pro Emeka Okafor, also played key roles in helping guarantee their first-career playoff appearances - all while ensuring rookie coach Monty Williams would get his with a far shorter wait.
Jack finished with 19 points, including four clutch free throws in the final 11.5 seconds. Okafor added 11 points, and afterward smiled broadly while talking about his impending maiden playoff voyage.
''I'm looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about,'' he said.
The victory moved the Hornets (45-33) into sixth in the Western Conference, ahead of Portland (45-33) by only a tiebreaker and one game ahead Memphis (44-34).
Kevin Martin scored 21 for Houston (41-38), 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.
''We played our tails off,'' Houston coach Rick Adelman said. ''We did everything we could do, we just didn't do enough. Give their guys a lot of credit. We got a big lead and they came back.''
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.
Goran Dragic, who was 4 of 5 on 3s and had 16 points, hit his last shot from deep to ignite a 5-0 spurt that put the Rockets up 86-81 with 6:45 to go.
Then Paul checked back in and turned the tables, immediately hitting a floater off the glass as he was fouled, and soon after setting up Jack's transition 3-pointer to cap an 8-0 run, after which New Orleans never trailed again.
Williams called Paul, ''a monster,'' noting that only a day earlier he had fluid drained from his left knee to relieve swelling that had resulted from a hard collision with Jeff Foster in the Hornets victory over Indiana on Sunday night.
''For him to be able to play at a high level like that with a sore leg, they just don't make them like that,'' Williams said. ''That act of sacrifice was what we needed and we certainly need him to play at that level.''
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, 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 with 11.5 seconds left.
''It hurts,'' said Lowry, whose Rockets will be eliminated with another loss or one Memphis win. ''This can't be happening right now ... with all the work that we've put in just to get this far and this close.''
Houston dominated early, with Chuck Hayes' 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, and the Rockets led 20-4 when Chase Budinger slammed down an alley-oop lob from Lowry.
Houston led 38-21 at the end of the first quarter, tying the most points allowed by the Hornets in any quarter this season.
New Orleans clawed back with a 10-0 run that included transition dunks by Smith and Ariza. Then Houston seized the momentum back as Dragic hit three 3s during a 13-4 spurt that made it 53-37.
The Hornets then responded with an 11-0 run during which Ariza and Paul both drained 3s, and 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.