When the Thunder and its fans inside the Ford Center needed a boost, New Orleans center Emeka Okafor came through in a big way.
With little to cheer or cringe at for the first 20 minutes, aside from an early stretch of hair-raising defense, Okafor stepped to the line at the 3:24 mark of the second quarter and short-armed two straight free throws. All that saved the two attempts from missing everything was a brush with the bottom of the net.
The announced crowd of 18,203 went crazy for the first time, and the Thunder rode the electricity to a 98-83 win over the Hornets on Wednesday night.
It was the Thunder’s third straight win and moved Oklahoma City to 39-24, the first time this season it has been 15 games above .500.
As usual, the Thunder took control of the game on the defensive end, overcoming a scorching start from Hornets forward David West, who scored 12 early points on 6-for-6 shooting to lift New Orleans to a 19-10 advantage with 5:42 left in the period.
The Thunder responded with a 10-0 run in a 2-minute, 2-second span to turn it into a nip-and-tuck affair until Okafor’s futile free throws. At that point, the Thunder ended the period on a 10-6 run to take a nine-point halftime lead, and Oklahoma City carried over that momentum into the third quarter.
OKC outscored New Orleans 26-17 in the period and used a 21-11 run in 7 1/2 minutes to open a 19-point lead. The Thunder held the Hornets to 3-for-10 shooting during the run.
"The defense in the third quarter has been great,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "We have a nice rhythm coming out of halftime of really stepping it up on the defensive end. That third quarter was a great example of how to play 12 minutes of defensive basketball.”
Really, the frame served as a blueprint the rest of the league can use on Hornets rookie guard Darren Collison, injured starter Chris Paul’s backup and a thorn in several sides. Collison entered Wednesday’s game averaging 20.7 points and 9.8 assists since filling in for Paul.
Former UCLA teammate Russell Westbrook and his Thunder teammates held Collison to eight points on 3-for-14 shooting and nine assists in 38 minutes.