NEW ORLEANS - Chris Paul had an overflow crowd on its feet before he’d even removed his warmups, showing off his Olympic gold medal during the pregame ceremonies for the Hornets’ home opener.
Now Paul seeks to add an NBA championship to his basketball resume and has to feel good about his chances with the help he’s getting from new teammate James Posey.
Paul had 24 points and 15 assists, and New Orleans remained perfect on the young season with a 104-92 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night.
David West added 25 points for New Orleans (3-0) and Posey scored 15 to go with his trademark clutch late-game defense and perimeter shooting.
Posey stole the ball from LeBron James and drove in for a breakaway dunk in the fourth quarter, then hit a 3-pointer as the shot clock wound down to put the Hornets up 96-85 inside the final three minutes.
“Posey is making it tough on himself now because every time he misses he’s going to hear from me,” Paul said as Posey changed clothes within earshot a couple lockers away. “He’s going to hear from me because I’m expecting him to make it every time now.”
The Hornets hope Posey, who helped Miami and Boston each win a title in the past three years, can do the same in New Orleans. It’s early, but New Orleans hasn’t lost once, not even in seven preseason games, since he’s arrived.
Having entered the season averaging 9.2 points in his career, he scored 11 in the Hornets’ opening win at Golden State on Wednesday, then added 13 points in a victory at Phoenix the next night before increasing his output even more against Cleveland.
Posey seems to think it’s no coincidence he’s scoring more than usual since being teamed up with Paul, a playmaking wizard who also has helped improved Tyson Chandler’s and David West’s scoring averages in recent seasons.
“We have very unselfish guys,” Posey said. “You have Chris making plays for himself and everybody else. You move the ball and you get wide-open shots.”
During pregame introductions, the locally popular Rebirth Brass Band played and cheerleaders bopped around the court waving handkerchiefs as if in a second-line parade, while a crowd of 18,150 showered the team with cheers and chanted “M-V-P!” for Paul.
Chandler and fellow starter Peja Stojakovic waved to the crowd wearing street clothes, however. Both were out with right ankle sprains, and Hornets coach Byron Scott started center Hilton Armstrong and forward Rasual Butler in their places.
That lineup did just fine. Butler scored 14 points, draining three 3-pointers. Armstrong and his backup, Melvin Ely, combined for 14 points and nine rebounds, with Armstrong scoring eight of those points and throwing down several dunks set up by Paul’s brilliance on the drive-and-dish.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas led Cleveland with 18 points, while James finished with 15 points and 13 assists. Daniel Gibson scored 14 points for the Cavs. Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West each added 12.
However, the Cavs turned the ball over 18 times, leading to 26 Hornets points.
“In order for us to be a good ball club, which I think we’re going to be ... we have to do a better job of taking care of the basketball,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. “Eighteen turnovers and 26 points off those 18 turnovers against one of the better teams in the league ... it’s going to be hard to win a game.”
Cleveland led 83-81 in the fourth quarter, but Paul tied it with a jumper, then set up Butler for a 3 from the corner to put the Hornets ahead 86-83 with 5:25 to go.
Cleveland called timeout, but it only delayed the Hornets’ decisive surge. Posey stole the ball from James on the Cavs’ next possession for his breakaway dunk, which sent the crowd into a frenzy.
James, sometimes guarded by Posey as he was in last season’s playoffs against Boston, said he “never really got into an offensive groove.”
“I never really got into a comfortable zone all night tonight,” he said. “We still were in the game going into the fourth quarter. But late in the game, I never got into it.”
James turned the ball over again when he was called for traveling, and the Hornets kept pulling away as Paul found West for an open jumper.
Paul’s free throws capped a 12-0 run, and Cleveland did not threaten again.
It was only an early season win, but an impressive one which Paul did not want to downplay, given that the Hornets play in the ultra competitive Western Conference, which sent eight 50-win teams to the playoffs last season.
“In the NBA and especially in this Western Conference, every win you get is very valuable,” Paul said. “At the end of the year, we’re going to look back on these wins and say, ’Man, that was a good one.’ We’ve got to keep piling them up.”
Notes: James was assessed a technical foul after arguing that a foul should have been called when he was bumped on a missed jump shot in the second half. ... Cleveland (1-2), which lost its season opener at Boston, is 0-2 on the road. ... New Orleans has 14 straight sellouts dating to last season. ... Hornets 2007 first-round draft choice Julian Wright, who missed the first two regular-season games with a sprained ankle, made his first appearance this season in the second quarter. He played only four minutes and did not score.
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