NEW ORLEANS (AP)—A visit from LeBron James produced the first sellout in New Orleans Arena this season.
The 17,623 fans who showed up perhaps noticed there was something else worth watching. Namely, their own team.
“LeBron, I know he gets sellouts everywhere he goes, so I tip my hat off to him for getting people here so they could see us,” said Hornets shooting guard Morris Peterson, who hit 3-pointers during each of two runs that helped the Hornets pull away in the second half. “It’s like in recruiting. Some guys have game film and the coach is watching him, and then the coach sees another player and ends up recruiting the other player instead.”
The Hornets have been struggling to draw big crowds since returning this season from a two-year stint in Oklahoma City, a displacement forced by Hurricane Katrina. The Hornets were last in the NBA in attendance, averaging 11,462 fans, coming into their home date against Cleveland.
Chris Paul said he felt the energy from the sellout crowd against Cleveland and it showed.
Paul had 20 points, nine assists and tied a career high with seven steals. Tyson Chandler added 11 points and 12 rebounds as New Orleans (20-10) tied its best start through 30 games in franchise history.
“We really fed off their energy,” Paul said. “When the crowd gets on their feet, it really gets us going.”
In addition to drawing fans, James drew a lot of attention from New Orleans. He tried to let his teammates do most of the scoring through the first three quarters, but it didn’t work.
New Orleans led by double digits throughout the second half, when James scored 13 of his 21 points.
“They doubled me the whole game, sometimes tripled me,” James said. “We know how to react to it. I’ve been getting double- and triple-teamed for the last three years. So we know how to react. We just didn’t shoot the ball well.”
Cleveland ended up with 14 turnovers, which New Orleans converted into 19 points.
“The bottom line was the turnovers and we came out flat in the third quarter,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. “They had something to do with that but we came out flat and it was hard to dig us out of a hole that big.”
New Orleans began to pull away with a 12-0 run to open the second half. Peterson hit a 3-pointer during the surge and Paul capped it with a 20-foot jumper. Peterson hit another 3-pointer during a 7-0 spurt that gave New Orleans a 65-49 lead midway through the third quarter.
West then scored six points on a slippery inside move, baseline jumper and free throws during an 11-2 run early in the fourth quarter that gave the Hornets their largest lead at 82-61.
“Any given night we’ve got guys capable of winning games, having a really, really big night,” West said. “It’s a long, long season and hopefully as we pick up steam here, people will continue to support us.”
Cleveland’s only basket during the surge was exactly what fans came to see, a soaring slam dunk by James. That basket also seemed to briefly ignite James, who hit a 3 and scored seven points during a 9-0 run that momentarily made things interesting as Cleveland pulled to 82-70 midway through the final period.
Paul snapped the Hornets’ drought with a pair of free throws with 4:24 to go. New Orleans then came up with a turnover and a pair of clock-killing offensive rebounds to all but put away the game and bring the crowd to its feet.
New Orleans slowed James early on, holding him to eight points during the first half.
Peja Stojakovic, who scored 10 points, got the Hornets started with a pair of early 3-pointers, while Paul converted a couple steals into baskets and scored 10 in the first half to help New Orleans build a 46-42 halftime lead.
The Hornets’ first sellout came in their 14th home game. An official sellout in New Orleans Arena is 17,188. … West has scored 20 or more points in five of his last six games and has scored in double digits in all but two games. … It was James’ last game as a 22-year-old. His 23rd birthday is Sunday. … The last time the Hornets were 10 games above .500 through 30 games was when they were 20-10 during the 2000-01 season, when they were still Charlotte’s team. … Chandler has grabbed at least 10 rebounds in eight straight games.