Hornets 109, Suns 97
Willie Green couldn't, so the New Orleans Hornets started looking to get him the ball.
Green, a reserve averaging 8.4 points, made his first 12 shots and finished with a season-high 31 points to lead the Hornets to a 109-97 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Friday night.
Green, who was 5 for 15 in his previous three games, hit a 3-pointer soon after entering midway through the first quarter. He made all five of his shots in the second quarter, one in the third quarter and put the Suns away with five more in the first 6 minutes of the fourth quarter - the last three baskets coming in a 29-second span as the Hornets extended a 99-88 lead to 107-88.
''I knew I was in a rhythm. I knew I was in a zone,'' Green said. ''But I didn't know I was 12 for 12. It was a good feeling. I had it going and I was trying to keep it going. I was just trying to be aggressive.''
He finally missed, failing to even hit the rim when he tried to draw a foul on Phoenix's Jared Dudley with less than 5 minutes left. He missed his next four shots as well, finishing 12 for 17 - including 5 for 6 on 3s.
''I don't know if you say en fuego or caught fire,'' New Orleans coach Monty Williams said. ''Whatever the term was, he got hot tonight and was rolling.''
Trevor Ariza added 21 points for the Hornets, Carl Landry scored 17 and Chris Paul had 12 assists as the Hornets tied Portland for sixth place in the Western Conference.
Dudley had a team-high 18 points for the Suns, who played without NBA assists leader Steve Nash and will have to win their final three games to avoid their first losing season since 2003-04. Marcin Gortat added 17 points, and Grant Hill scored 15.
The Suns were still in it, trailing 85-79 at the end of the third quarter, before Green's final surge. He hit a 3 to give the Hornets a 90-79 lead, then sank an outside shot to make it 94-82. New Orleans led by double digits the rest of the way.
His shots in the first three quarters came within the framework of the offense. Then the Hornets started looking for him and letting him go to work in the fourth quarter.
He shook his arms as if he were too hot to be contained after his fourth 3 gave them a 102-88 lead. The next time down the court, he faced up Zabian Dowdell, dribbled in place and launched an outside shot that hit nothing but net.
After a scramble play under the basket on New Orleans' next possession, Ariza passed to him for one more wide-open 3. He swished it as the crowd went wild, then pumped his fist and ran down the court to take a charge from Hill.
''I was happy with making the shot and then getting on defense and getting the charge, all of it collectively together because that's something we stress,'' Green said. ''Even though we're doing the things we're capable of on offense, defense is our pillar. We did a good job defensively tonight and that's what triggers our offense.''
New Orleans, which clinched a playoff berth by beating Houston on Wednesday, is trying to avoid a matchup with the two-time NBA defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. The Lakers, the likely second seed, swept four games from the Hornets.
New Orleans is 5-2 since losing leading scorer David West to an ACL injury.
''We want to go into the playoffs full-steam ahead and not backing into it,'' Paul said. ''We just continue to work and keep trying to get as good as we can.''
Phoenix appeared less interested in avoiding finishing below .500. Nash rested a strained right hamstring, and the Suns allowed the Hornets to hit a season-high 55.6 percent from the floor.
''Regardless of if we're playing for something or not, we've got to go out there and compete,'' said Vince Carter, who scored 14 points off the bench. ''We played early in quarters and we don't finish.''
Phoenix closed to 10 points down the stretch, but couldn't get any closer.
The Suns took a 28-18 lead in the first 8 minutes, scoring from everywhere on the court. Hill had nine of those points, hitting four of his first five shots, and Dudley went 3 for 3 with a dunk and two layups.
Outhustled during that stretch, the Hornets responded with a 13-2 run. Paul scored his only points of the first half in the final 35 seconds of the quarter hitting a 3-pointer to close the deficit to 30-29 and a step-back buzzer beater to give New Orleans its first lead, 31-30.
The Hornets never trailed again Landry, West's replacement, was almost as proficient as Green, sinking eight of 10 shots.
''We can't close out quarters,'' Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. ''We were going along great, then we make a couple substitutions and we can't sustain.''
Phoenix fell to 1-6 without Nash. Starting in Nash's place, Aaron Brooks had nine points and nine assists, making two of seven shots.
NOTES: The Hornets have won three in a row for the first time since January, when they won 10 straight. ... Nash is on pace to lead the NBA in assists for the fifth time in the last seven seasons, averaging 11.4. Boston's Rajon Rondo is second at 11.2. ... The 6-foot-7 Dudley met his preseason prediction with his 10th dunk early in the first quarter off a pass from Brooks. His goal was a source of amusement for his teammates all year. He had none through the first 49 games.