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Hornets' Paul returns from ankle injury

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Philadelphia 76ers spoiled Chris Paul's
return to the New Orleans Hornets lineup on Wednesday night.

The reigning Rookie of the Year, who missed the previous month with a severely sprained right ankle, finished with nine points and two assists in 29 minutes in the 89-78 loss.

"It's disappointing for me and the team," Paul said. "They won three in a row, and I come back and we get the life beat out of us."

Paul said the Hornets didn't have enough defensive intensity and let Philadelphia be the aggressor.

"We settled for a bunch of jump shots," Paul said. "We're just going to have to drive more."

Coach Byron Scott said he saw Paul warming up on a television
monitor when he entered the Ford Center, and Paul almost beat him
to his office. Once there, Paul bounced up and down to show that
his ankle was healthy.

"He came in my office a little while ago just jumping up and
down like it was his first pro game, just raring to go," Scott
said before tipoff. "I can see it in his eyes that he's ready to
go."

Scott could also tell it by looking at Paul, who'd shaved down a
thin layer of hair that he'd let grow out since he hurt the ankle
by landing on Seattle's Johan Petro during a drive through the lane
on Dec. 26.

"If he cut his hair, he plans on playing," Scott said.

Paul's 18.4-point average is tops on the Hornets and he ranks
third in the league with an average of nine assists. He returned to
practice for the first time Tuesday, and went through the Hornets'
shootaround on Wednesday morning.

"If it was hurting, I wouldn't play. If I felt like I was going
to hurt the team, I wouldn't go out there," Paul said. "But so
far, so good."

Scott said he expected Paul to focus more on getting his
teammates involved until he got back into an offensive rhythm.

"I still think it's going to take him four or five games to
really, really get back into the Chris Paul that we saw before he
got hurt," Scott said.

The Hornets went 8-9 without Paul, including a three-game
winning streak to start their current five-game homestand. Since
Paul was hurt, the Hornets have had starting forward David West
(elbow surgery) and backup guard Bobby Jackson (cracked ribs)
return from injuries.

"The troops started to get a little bit healthier," Scott
said. "When you get two of those guys back it makes your team
better, and when you get Chris Paul back it makes your team much
better."

Scott said he wanted Paul to play normally and not be cautious,
but he did intend to limit the point guard's minutes.

"My biggest concern is his conditioning," Scott said. "I've
got to make sure that I really watch him closely."

With Paul back, Scott said he was considering altering his
starting lineup to move Devin Brown into the shooting guard
position and make Rasual Butler one of his first reserves off the
bench to sub for small forward Desmond Mason. Brown, who signed
with the Hornets as a free agent in December, took over Paul's
starting role after his injury.

Jackson and Jannero Pargo would also continue in reserve roles.

"I think all deserve to play," Scott said. "I think they all
played pretty well."

The Hornets are still without Paul's starting backcourt mate,
Peja Stojakovic. Stojakovic had back surgery in December and isn't
expected back until March.