They were toasting Chris Paul early Wednesday night at the Garden. A group of very loud fans near the floor were clinking plastic bottles of beer while yelling out reasons why Paul should leave New Orleans for New York.
As toasts go, it wasn't as elegant as the now infamous one Paul offered last summer at Carmelo Anthony's wedding in New York. The meaning, however, was the same.
Despite his unimpressive game Wednesday night, there were more than a few people attending the Knicks 107-88 win over the Hornets who would like to see Paul join Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire in New York.
Since Paul publicly suggested that the three team up and form their own "Big Three" in New York, Anthony has joined Stoudemire on the Knicks and Paul is now the only missing piece. Paul will be a free agent in 2012, and the fans gave him a warm, we'd-love-to-see-you-back-here ovation when he was introduced before the start of the game. They also chanted his name and "CP Three" at various points during the game.
"It's an honor," Paul said after the game, "but I really was more focused on the scoreboard and what I had to do out there."
Paul didn't exactly respond with his best game.
The two-time All Star was outplayed by Knick backup Toney Douglas, who was starting in place of the injured Chauncey Billups. Billups had apparently given Douglas some advice before the game about being aggressive. And the result was that the backup was the most impressive point guard on the floor, responding with five assists and 24 points, shooting 10-for-13.
Paul, by contrast, finished the game with 10 assists and just four points on 2-for-7 shooting. He struggled from the get-go, going scoreless until the final second of the first half when he hit a jumper at the buzzer.
The game continued a recent scoring funk for Paul. In his two games before Wednesday night, Paul scored seven points against Toronto and six against Houston.
"Chris is fine. He just didn't play as well as he would like to tonight," Hornets coach Monty Williams said. "He's never gone through a period like this in his career."
Despite his lackluster game, Paul is still expected to be a player the Knicks, and other teams, go courting next season as he prepares to be a free agent. He, Dwight Howard of Orlando and New Jersey's Deron Williams are considered the big prizes of the class of 2012. Paul said he is aware of all the talk, but it hasn't affected his play.
"It's not a distraction at all," he said. "I'm one of those guys who is fully invested in anything I'm a part of. Free agency is a long time from now."
Unless the NBA and the players agree to a new collective bargaining agreement that makes it harder for big-market teams to lure superstars from smaller ones, the atmosphere in New Orleans could become a Denver-like circus. New Orleans' Emeka Okafor watched that situation closely, and knows the same sort of thing could be happening on his team next year.
"It was interesting,'' Okafor said.