Point guard Chris Paul is getting MVP consideration in part because of his ability to run the New Orleans Hornets' offense. If the team struggles through many more performances like its last one, Paul might take himself out of the race.

Paul and the Western Conference-leading Hornets look to bounce back from one of their worst offensive games of the season as they visit the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night.

New Orleans (54-23) has matched its franchise-best win total and taken over the best record in one of the deepest conferences in NBA history thanks to the efforts of Paul, who's averaging a team-high 21.5 points, as well as 11.4 assists and 2.7 steals - both tops in the league.

Paul and his team, however, struggled on Tuesday night, when the Hornets recorded a season-low point total in their 77-66 loss to Utah. Paul was held to four points and 2-for-11 shooting, while the Hornets shot 36.5 percent from the field - their fourth-worst performance of the season - and committed 18 turnovers, two shy of their season high.

"It was the first time in a long time that I can remember that we just couldn't make shots on a consistent basis," said Hornets coach Byron Scott, whose team entered the game in the league's top 10 in scoring (101.0 points per game) and field-goal percentage (46.6). "I don't remember us being that cold for an entire game. Again, you have to give (Utah) credit on defense, but we just couldn't knock down the shots."

Scott hopes his club can bounce back as it tries to protect its lead in the West. New Orleans, which first reached 54 wins in the 1996-97 season, is one game ahead of Southwest Division rival San Antonio in the crowded conference standings.

The Timberwolves (19-58) are at the opposite end of the race, having lost five straight. Minnesota center Al Jefferson matched his career high with 40 points and added 10 rebounds on Tuesday night, but he missed a potential game-tying shot at the buzzer and struggled defensively early in the Wolves' 121-119 loss at Charlotte. Bobcats center Nazr Mohammed opened the game 8-for-8 from the field while matched up with Jefferson.

"He's got to learn. He's a young kid," Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman said of the 23-year-old Jefferson. "We all get paid for 82 games, and there's no games you take off and just play through. We don't do it that way. You get embarrassed a little bit, and then he wakes up and plays pretty hard."

Jefferson, averaging career highs of 21.2 points and 11.2 rebounds, has been held to an average of 15.0 points and 9.3 boards in three meetings with New Orleans.

The Hornets have won two of those contests, most recently a 110-76 rout on Dec. 22. Paul had 19 points, 15 assists and five steals in that contest, and is averaging 25.0 points, 13.0 assists and 4.5 steals while shooting 53.3 percent from the field in two games against the Timberwolves this season.


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