Phoenix (38-40) at New Orleans (45-33)

By JUSTIN EINHORN, STATS Senior Editor Thursday, Apr 7, 2011 Tipoff: 8:00 pm EDT Fri Apr 8, 2011

The New Orleans Hornets failed to make a third consecutive playoff appearance last season due greatly to Chris Paul(notes) missing so much time.

This season, Paul has stayed healthy and New Orleans is back in the playoffs.

Two days after clinching a postseason berth, the Hornets look to maintain their momentum as Paul again tries to get the better of Steve Nash(notes) in a matchup with the visiting Phoenix Suns on Friday night.

Paul led the Hornets to their first division title in 2007-08 and another playoff appearance the following season before sitting out nearly half of last season with injuries. He’s only missed two games in 2010-11 - no teammate has played more - despite some nagging injuries that have resulted in a slight drop in his usual numbers.

However, Paul has helped New Orleans (45-33) overcome the season-ending injury to top scorer David West(notes), and the team wrapped up a playoff spot Wednesday with a 101-93 home win over Houston.

“It feels great. This team fought all year,” said Paul, who had 28 points and 10 assists. “We can’t celebrate too much, we still have work to do, but it’s a good feeling knowing that all the adversity we’ve been through with losing our guy D-West, we still found a way.”

Paul is a big reason why, averaging 18.8 points and 11.2 assists over his past 13 games - the Hornets won nine. He also has more steals (28) than turnovers (20) during that span.

He’s regularly taken advantage of matchups with the defensively inferior Nash, and this season has been no different as New Orleans has won two of three meetings. Paul’s 24.7 points per game versus Phoenix are easily his most against any opponent. Nash has averaged 7.0 points in the season series, his worst against any team.

Since the start of 2007-08, Paul has averaged 26.2 points and 10.8 assists in 11 matchups with Phoenix, and the Hornets have won eight.

Nash has just 12 points over his last two games after missing a pair due to flu-like symptoms, though he did total 25 assists as the Suns played better. They nearly rallied from a 22-point deficit in the second half against Eastern Conference-leading Chicago in a 97-94 loss Tuesday, a night before winning 108-98 in Minnesota for just their second victory in eight games.

Phoenix (38-40) will miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons and must win three of its final four games to avoid finishing with a losing record for the first time since 2003-04.

“It’s nice to win games and have something positive to end the season,” Nash said. “.500 is better than not. It would be great if we can do it.”

New Orleans has won five of seven, averaging just 10.9 turnovers, but enters Friday looking for its first three-game win streak since January.

The Hornets are within reach of Denver for fifth in the West but are more likely to settle for one of the conference’s final three seeds along with Portland and Memphis.

“Making the playoffs was the first step. We have plenty of things to do to prepare ourselves mentally and physically,” forward Jason Smith(notes) said. “We have to game plan for teams coming up. We can’t just be relaxed and be happy that we made the playoffs. We want to make something happen in the playoffs.”

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