CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—Emeka Okafor(notes) returned here early Saturday morning, slept in his old bed, ate lunch at his favorite burrito joint and later greeted many old friends at the arena he used to call home.
Okafor’s return to Charlotte rekindled memories, brought light applause and — with a big assist from rookie Darren Collison(notes)—ended with a much-needed win for the short-handed New Orleans Hornets.
Collison scored a career-high 24 points filling in for Chris Paul(notes), David West(notes) added 21 points, and Okafor turned in a signature solid performance in a 104-99 victory over the listless Bobcats on Saturday night.
In the first regular-season meeting since the July trade that sent Okafor to New Orleans for Tyson Chandler(notes), the Hornets rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to snap a three-game losing streak since Paul was sidelined.
“It was nice coming back here and having all the memories come back and seeing everybody,” Okafor said after scoring 16 points, grabbing seven rebounds and hitting all four free throws. “But a game is a game.”
With the All-Star Paul out at least a month following knee surgery and Marcus Thornton(notes) (lower back pain) out for a second straight game, the Hornets figured to face a difficult task with the Bobcats entering the night 18-5 at home.
But in their first home game in two weeks following a 3-3 West Coast trip, the Bobcats were flat and faded in the second half as Collison took over.
“Everybody’s talking that we’re a playoff team,” Bobcats coach Larry Brown said. “That just shows you how far away we really are. There’s a difference between being good and hoping to be good.”
Paul’s injury might cost the Hornets a playoff berth—or maybe not if Collison keeps playing like this.
The rookie from UCLA was able to consistently penetrate inside. Following Morris Peterson’s(notes) consecutive 3-pointers, Collison hit two free throws and later scored on a nifty driving layup to cap a 12-4 run and give New Orleans a 95-85 lead with 5:15 left.
The Bobcats cut a 12-point deficit to 102-99 on Jackson’s three-point play with 30.5 seconds left. But then Collison again blew by Raymond Felton(notes) for a left-handed layup with 10.1 seconds left.
“I have a chance to use my speed and quickness,” Collison said. “Like (assistant coach) Tim Floyd told me, if you have a cannon, shoot it.”
Sidelined with a stress reaction in his left foot since Dec. 26, Chandler returned to practice Friday and Brown announced two hours before the game that he expected Chandler to play a few minutes.
But Chandler said an hour later that he still wasn’t ready and wanted a couple more days of running first. So while he sat out his 22nd consecutive game, Okafor played in his 226th straight—getting mostly applause when he was introduced.
“I guess that was the ending of the experience,” Okafor said. “Walking in was weird, walking into the locker room and then being announced as on the visitor’s side was different.”
Okafor was outplayed early by Mohammed, who hit his first seven shots, then went 0 for 2 from the field and played sparingly after halftime.
The Hornets’ annual return to Charlotte, they left in a huff in 2002 over a failed arena proposal—highlighted the replacement Bobcats’ financial struggles in their sixth season.
Owner Bob Johnson has millions amid sluggish ticket and sponsorship sales and is looking to sell. It’s uncertain whether a new ownership group, which could include former Houston Rockets executive George Postolos, will retain managing partner Michael Jordan.
“My hope is that Michael is involved,” Brown said before the game. “It’s why I came here and I haven’t been disappointed.”
Jordan, rarely seen at games, wasn’t in his courtside seat. The Bobcats did have a rare sellout—only to have one of their worst defensive efforts of the season.
“There wasn’t any energy,” Jackson said. “We didn’t play hard as a team.”
NOTES: Hornets coach Jeff Bower said Thornton was making progress and said he could “maybe” play Monday against Orlando. … Brown interrupted his pregame media availability to hug Okafor as he walked down the hall after visiting some former teammates. “You look fit,” Brown told him. “Appreciate it,” replied Okafor. … Bobcats F Alexis Ajinca(notes), who has been in the NBA Development League since Nov. 30, will be in a cast for six weeks after thumb surgery Friday.