Basketball

For one quarter, NBA is fun again

The crowd was sparse and for three quarters the game was choppy. There was no rhythm, little grace and not a lot of excitement.

And then came the fourth quarter. It was as if the warm-up band had been ushered off the stage and the stars took over.

The final 12 minutes were mesmerizing.

The Charlotte Bobcats were up by five points and then the New Orleans Hornets were and then the Bobcats were up by seven and then, with 14.6 seconds to play, they were up by only one.

Charlotte, of course, is where the Hornets grew and thrived before the relationship went bad and the franchise headed to New Orleans. The Hornets have become one of the league's better teams, as well as one of the most interesting.

That's primarily because of Chris Paul, the North Carolina native and former Wake Forest star who has supplanted Steve Nash as the NBA's best point guard.

Yet the official attendance at Time Warner Cable Arena for one of the Bobcats' rare glamour games was only 13,435, about what Independence and Butler drew for another in a series of their legendary high school football battles down the street.

Also rare: the Bobcats gave fans a reason to come back. Charlotte point guard Raymond Felton outplayed Paul in the first half. At the break, Paul had no points and one assist. Charlotte rookie Alexis Ajinca scored one point in the half. The Bobcats are 1-0 when Ajinca outscores Paul in the first half.

Paul scored 14 points in the third quarter and added five assists and displayed all his tricks and gifts.

But every time he threatened to make the game his, the Bobcats forced a turnover or hit a huge shot or took a charge or grabbed a rebound.

With the Hornets in town, it was like old times, of course. But it was like old times because Matt Carroll and Adam Morrison got off the bench and into the game. Each played well.

Although Carroll missed all four three-point attempts, he finished with seven points, four rebounds and three assists. Scottie Pippen lives.

Charlotte's reserves outscored New Orleans' 34-26. The best of them was rookie point guard D.J. Augustin, a New Orleans native. Larry Brown used Augustin extensively in the fourth quarter.

Augustin was fearless and relentless going to the hoop. Down by three, he saw Gerald Wallace on the wing but the pass was risky and he held up his hand, urging calm. Then he calmly hit a jumper. Two possessions later, he set up Wallace for an easy slam.

Although it was Wallace's only basket, he finished with eight points, seven rebounds, four steals and one humongous trade rumor. The Bobcats need a big man and they have little to offer. If Jason Richardson and Emeka Okafor are untouchable, Wallace almost certainly is gone.

The Bobcats finished the game by forcing a Paul turnover and hitting three free throws. They won 92-89.

It was a thrill of a fourth quarter, a fine Friday night of basketball and a reminder of why, during the Hornets' glory days, we loved this sport.

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