NEW ORLEANS -- Chris Paul was not sure he would be able to stay on the court in his first game in three weeks. He did much more than that, coming close to a triple-double in his return after missing eight games because of a sprained ankle.
Paul finished with 16 points, 15 assists and a season-high eight steals, one off his career high, and Devin Brown had 19 points in the New Orleans Hornets' 98-89 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night.
No one on either team played as much as Paul, who logged 38:32.
"I think it was the adrenaline," he said. "I got to the game early and had a nice workout. I was nervous. I give credit to my teammates for bearing with me and having confidence in me."
Paul found his rhythm near the end of the second quarter, scoring all five of his first-half points in the last 31 seconds as the Hornets closed with a 9-0 run to pull to 49-47. His floater in the lane with 30.8 seconds left was his first basket in six attempts, and he sank three free throws after drawing a foul from Ryan Hollins while attempting a 30-foot shot at the buzzer. Hollins could not get out of the way after Paul slowed down and stepped in front of him.
Officials checked the replay to determine if time had run out, ruling that one-tenth of a second remained.
"That foul at the end was huge, it got me going a little bit," Paul said. "I was so frustrated with myself. All this time I've been out I've had to time to shoot, and then I go out and miss those first four or five shots."
The Hornets turned a 63-61 deficit into a 75-65 lead with a 14-2 run at the end of the third quarter and led by at least five points the rest of the way. David West put them ahead for good, 65-63, with a basket after blocking a shot by Kevin Love.
Brown led a balanced scoring attack for the Hornets. West and Emeka Okafor each had 17 points.
Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis said the Hornets' run at the end of the first half was the turning point.
"It wasn't necessarily [Paul]," Rambis said. "Some of it had to do with us. We turned the ball over, we missed free throws. There was an ill-advised foul when [Paul] jumped into Ryan Hollins and it was called in his favor. That run happened in 53 seconds. We don't keep our focus."
Brown's layup at the third-quarter buzzer gave New Orleans its first double-digit lead. Minnesota went more than four minutes without a basket and shot 7-for-22 in the quarter.
"The end of the first half changed the whole tempo of the game," Love said. "They came out and beat us up a little bit in the third quarter."
The Timberwolves pulled within six points five times in the fourth quarter but did not get closer until Love sank a 3-pointer to make the score 87-82. Paul responded immediately with a 3 to get the lead back up to eight.
Minnesota's last chance ended when Love stepped out of bounds just before converting a layup and getting fouled as the Timberwolves trailed 94-84 with less than three minutes left.
Paul made nice passes to Emeka Okafor and Peja Stojakovic for layups in the first quarter, but he was not at full speed early. With a chance to drive to the basket on a fast break, he pulled up and missed a flat-footed 6-foot shot. He also was slow getting up the court on a few possessions and missed his first four shots.
Minnesota led by as many as 11 points, 49-38, in the first half after going on a 10-0 run early in the second quarter. Wayne Ellington and Sasha Pavlovic hit 3-pointers to bookend the spurt, but the Timberwolves gave almost all of the advantage away in the final minute.
Paul made them pay the rest of the way. He was not expected to return until Tuesday at the earliest against Sacramento, but he decided he could not wait any longer.
"I knew at some point I was going to have to come back and test it and get a good barometer," he said. "This way, if it didn't work out I'd have four days before we came back and played another game."
Love, the No. 5 pick in the 2008 NBA draft, played in his first game since breaking a bone in his left non-shooting hand in the preseason. He finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds after entering with 6:20 left in the first quarter ... The Timberwolves had won their last road game 106-100 against Denver. ... The Hornets have won five in a row at home.