Paul had 33 points and 15 assists, and the Hornets became the first team in the Western Conference to clinch a playoff berth, beating the New York Knicks 118-110 on Friday night.
New Orleans (53-22), which never has been better than a No. 4 seed in the playoffs, increased its lead atop the Western Conference to 1 1/2 games over the San Antonio Spurs, who lost to Utah.
“It’s a great feeling,” Paul said. “It’s my third year in the league and I’ve never been to the playoffs, but we finally did it. Now the hard work begins.”
Paul asserted himself the most when the Hornets fell behind, scoring 13 points in the last 5:15 of the first half and making several key plays when they fell behind by four in the fourth quarter.
“He turned it around for us,” New Orleans coach Byron Scott said. “He got more aggressive and his will to win the game and take it upon himself to ensure the victory is probably the biggest thing that happened tonight.”
Jamal Crawford had 29 points and nine assists for the Knicks, who have lost 17 of 19 but stayed competitive through three quarters. The Hornets trailed 95-91 with 10:20 left before putting away the game with a 26-9 run, getting 12 points from Peja Stojakovic during that spurt.
Stojakovic finished with 22 points and David West added 17 for the Hornets, who won their 10th in a row at home. They were coming off a season-high, six-game road trip in which they went 5-1.
New York (20-56) finished an 0-5 road trip. The Knicks played well for 3 1/2 quarters but could not sustain that effort down the stretch as embattled coach Isiah Thomas missed an opportunity to impress new president of basketball operations Donnie Walsh.
“We fought the whole game and guys played good,” Randolph said. “Just towards the end, Chris took over, hit big shots and we couldn’t bounce back.”
Paul came up with a steal and an assist to Bonzi Wells for a transition layup to give New Orleans the lead for good, 97-95. Seconds later, Paul added an easy basket after another Knicks turnover.
New York called a timeout and cut the deficit to 99-98, but Stojakovic drained two 3-pointers to give the Hornets a 107-100 lead with 5:56 left. Paul then hit five straight free throws as New Orleans built its advantage to 117-104.
“He did everything right when the team needed him,” Thomas said. “It was a close game, then in two to three minutes he just takes charge of the game with his playmaking and passing ability. He is everything you hate coaching against, but you love watching him play because he is very special.”
Not so special was the Hornets’ defense. The Knicks shot better than 50 percent in each of the first three quarters before cooling off in the fourth.
“We waited so late to really start playing defense,” Scott said. “It wasn’t until the game was in jeopardy of getting away from us that we started to be a little more aggressive.”
The Hornets have beaten the Knicks six times in a row, their longest current win streak against an NBA team. … The Knicks have lost 22 in a row to Western Conference teams dating back to a win over Utah on Nov. 26. They also have lost 18 consecutive road games to Western Conference teams since beating the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 13, 2007. … New York’s Quentin Richardson, who sustained a concussion in the first quarter on Wednesday against Memphis, was not in uniform. … Asked before the game whether his confidence level had changed about his future with the Knicks following Walsh’s hiring Wednesday, Thomas said: “Our job is to do what’s best for the Knicks organization and make it better. Whatever he needs and whatever he wants, we’ll do.”