NEW ORLEANS -- Chris Paul has decided to take a shoot-first, pass-later approach lately, and it's producing wins for a Hornets team that needs them to solidify its playoff hopes.
"I just try to be aggressive," Paul said. "I've learned, watching all the games, that if I'm aggressive early, it makes the defense collapse on me and it makes my teammates open even more."
In three games since his return from a mild concussion, Paul has averaged 28.7 points and 11.3 assists.
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"He's being more aggressive, taking his shots and making himself a scoring threat," Hornets forward David West said. "He's putting pressure on guys to defend him."
Emeka Okafor had his first double-double in 11 games since returning from an injury in Phoenix, with 16 points and 11 rebounds. West added 16 points, including an 18-foot jumper to give the Hornets a 95-88 lead with 29.5 seconds to go.
Yet, despite winning for the fifth time in seven games, the Hornets could not help but express a measure of disappointment in themselves after nearly blowing a 19-point, third-quarter lead while the Suns, a club known for its outside shooting, made 14 3-pointers.
"I get frustrated because we have these mental lapses against teams that are sharp right now," Hornets coach Monty Williams said. "We had some missed assignments. We were leaving shooters to rotate to non-shooters and then those guys are wide open and that's what they do -- they knock down 3s. ... To me, it's about personal responsibility."
Phoenix was as close as 93-88 when Grant Hill rolled in a 14-footer with three minutes left, but New Orleans did not allow another basket until 21 seconds remained, when Jared Dudley, who had 25 points, hit his fifth 3.
Paul and West then each made clutch free throws to seal it.
Phoenix (33-33) fell three games behind Memphis for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot despite the return of Steve Nash, who had missed the Suns' two previous games with a pelvic injury.
Nash had 10 assists and finished with eight points, but missed a long 3 in the final two minutes with the Suns trailing by five and needing a basket.
"He tried, but he's not the same guy," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "I didn't expect him to be. Just to have him out there was good for us. He's not going to be a 100 percent, and with him that's important that he has the zip."
Marcin Gortat had 10 points, but uncharacteristically missed a layup that could have pulled Phoenix within three points with 2:19 to go.
Vince Carter scored 21 for Phoenix, hitting five 3s.
Willie Green had 11 points for New Orleans (40-30), which moved a half-game in front of Portland for the sixth seed in the West. While the Hornets were giving up 3s, they were dominating the interior, outscoring Phoenix 46-22 in the paint and outrebounding the Suns 43-36.
New Orleans had its largest lead at 71-52 following an 11-0 run that began when Paul found Marco Belinelli for a transition 3. Paul then used a hesitation dribble to set up an easy, crowd-pleasing layup, and he capped the surge with a pull-up jumper.
Phoenix gradually narrowed the gap, with Carter's turnaround on the baseline and Dudley's 3 pulling the Suns to 77-65 at the end of the third quarter.
The Suns continued to chip away from the perimeter in the fourth quarter on 3s by Dudley, Mickael Pietrus, Hill and Carter, the last cutting New Orleans' lead to 91-86 and setting up a tense finish that required the Hornets clinch the victory on the foul line.
New Orleans wound up outscoring Phoenix 18-11 from the line and outshot the Suns from the field 47.5 percent (38 of 80) to 43.2 percent (35 of 81).
Phoenix held the edge through most of the first quarter, leading 29-24 on Dudley's inside basket. Then the game turned dramatically when Paul finished the period with seven straight points on a jumper, two free throws and a 3 at the horn that was set up by his steal in the backcourt.
That was the beginning of an 18-3 run, also highlighted by rookie Quincy Pondexter's fade and 3-pointer, giving the Hornets a 42-32 lead early in the second quarter.
Dudley's 3 snapped the surge and the Suns got as close as 48-46 on Carter's 3 before Paul took over again, hitting a pull-up jumper and a 3 as the Hornets scored the last eight points of the half to head into the locker room with a 56-46 lead.
"Chris Paul was amazing in the first half," Dudley said. "He dominated the game."
The Hornets are 2-13 when an opponent makes 10 or more 3s. ... Hornets opponents have hit 31 3s in the past two games. ... The Hornets are 24-10 at home, while Phoenix fell to 15-18 on the road. ... The Suns won the only other meeting so far on Jan. 30 in Phoenix. They play twice more, first in Phoenix on March 25 and then in New Orleans on April 8.