New Orleans/Oklahoma City 90, Minnesota 83

OKLAHOMA CITY, Feb. 2 (AP) -- Chris Paul needed one game to get warmed up. By his second game back, he was ready to lead the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets to a victory.

The reigning rookie of the year had 24 points and eight assists, and sparked a fourth-quarter rally Friday night to help the Hornets put away the Minnesota Timberwolves 90-83.

"He looked like the old Chris tonight,'' Hornets coach Byron Scott said, "and that was a very good sight to see.''

Paul missed 17 games after severely spraining his right ankle against Seattle on Dec. 26, and he had only nine points and a season-low two assists upon returning from a monthlong absence in New Orleans/Oklahoma City's 89-78 loss to Philadelphia on Wednesday.

"I just felt a lot more comfortable tonight than in the last game,'' Paul said. "I think getting that one game under my belt gave me a little bit more confidence in my ankle.''

With Minnesota within one point, Paul set up Desmond Mason's layup at the right block and then added two baskets during a 9-0 run that gave New Orleans an 85-75 lead with 2:19 to play.

The Timberwolves got back within 85-80 after Randy Foye's 3-pointer and Kevin Garnett's right-handed jam off an offensive rebound, but Paul hit four free throws in the final minute to seal the win.

"I knew it was a matter of him getting his feet under him. It's hard for a player to sit out as long as he did and then come back and play,'' Hornets center Tyson Chandler said. "I knew it was a matter of time with him getting his feet and his wind and timing back.''

Chandler added 16 points and tied his season high with 18 rebounds, reserve Jannero Pargo had 13 points, and Mason scored 12 as the Hornets ended up 4-1 on a five-game homestand split between their two hometowns.

Mark Blount scored 21 points to lead Minnesota, and Garnett finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds for his NBA-best 39th double-double of the season. Ricky Davis scored 13 points on 5-for-15 shooting, and Foye added 10 points as Minnesota lost its second straight game after ending Phoenix's 17-game winning streak earlier in the week.

"We couldn't execute down the stretch,'' Garnett said. "I think we took a step back tonight, so tomorrow we've got to look at some film and try to take a step forward tomorrow.''

The Timberwolves have lost eight of their last 10 games to fall out of the top eight in the Western Conference. They now have the same 22-24 record they had through 46 games last season.

New Orleans/Oklahoma City, which has made up four games on Minnesota in that 10-game span, pulled within two games of the ninth-place Timberwolves.

"It's like two similar teams, just one team executed down the stretch and made some shots and we didn't,'' Garnett said.

Minnesota was down 76-75 after Garnett's layup at the left block before Paul helped the Hornets pull away.

The 6-foot point guard set up Mason's layup at the other end, then hit a jumper from the right baseline to make it 80-75. Devin Brown added a runner from the right side, and Paul capped the surge by stripping Davis and rushing downcourt for a layup that led to a three-point play.

"That's the type of thing that he does,'' Pargo said. "He just gets in the lane at will, finishes plays or dishes off to other people for them to finish plays. That's the Chris Paul that we expect to see.''

Paul said doctors have told him to have good days and bad days on the ankle, which he hurt by landing on Johan Petro's foot while jumping in the lane.

"I could explode off my right and left foot a little bit more today. It's just a process,'' Paul said. "Hopefully, I feel better tomorrow night also.''

Scott has been trying to ease Paul back into the lineup, and the 32 minutes he played against Minnesota were the maximum he'd set before the game. He had expected Paul to take a few more games to get back to his old self.

"His mind has healed, that's all. The ankle's fine. It's just a matter of him not thinking about it and going out there and playing,'' Scott said.

New Orleans/Oklahoma City scored the first eight points of the game and claimed an 18-7 lead on Paul's runner in the lane. Minnesota got back within 31-30 early in the second quarter and was down 48-45 at halftime after officials ruled that Paul's 3-pointer came after the buzzer.

The Timberwolves scored eight straight points, including three baskets by Blount, to take their first lead at 57-56. Chandler had two tip-ins as the Hornets scored six straight points go up 66-61 after three quarters, but Minnesota tied it by scoring the first five points of the final period.

Notes: An usher was taken to the hospital as a precaution after collapsing on the court during a timeout with 10:24 left in the second quarter. The game was delayed about five minutes. ... Brown, who gave his starting spot back to Paul when the second-year star returned from a sprained ankle on Wednesday, was back in the starting lineup in place of Rasual Butler at shooting guard. ... After failing to get his first assist until the last minute of the first half on Wednesday, Paul had one in the opening minute against Minnesota. He's had at least one assist in the first half of every game he has played.

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