Tuesday February 12th, 2008

Shortly after Chris Paul had finished torching his role model and Western Conference rival Steve Nash for the third time this season, the Hornets' point guard offered a humble analysis of New Orleans's 132-130 double-overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 6. "Coach finally made the right call and gave Peja [Stojakovic] the last shot instead of me," said Paul. It was indeed Stojakovic's buzzer-beating 22-footer that won the game, but it was Paul's groaning stat line (42 points, five rebounds, nine assists, eight steals and only one turnover in 50 minutes) that was commanding most of the attention in the cramped visitors' locker room at US Airways Center.

So it was left to teammates Bobby Jackson and Jannero Pargo, the other members of the three-guard offense that played all 10 overtime minutes, to analyze the box score a different way.

"Hey, Kobe," said Jackson, cupping his mouth and yelling at Paul. "You get enough shots?" Paul had fired up a season-high 33.

"Let me see that," said Pargo, looking at the stat sheet. "Hey, Chris Bryant over here. Everybody come talk to Chris Bryant."

Paul smiled and waved his hand in a just-ignore-them gesture. From across the crowded room, Stojakovic looked on with amusement. "They like to give it to Chris a little bit," he said. "We all give it to each other a little bit."

More often, though, the Hornets have been giving it to other teams -- especially the Suns, whom they've beaten three times this season with Paul averaging 30.3 points, 9.7 assists, 4.3 steals and, most improbably, 1.0 turnovers. And as All-Star weekend begins in New Orleans on Friday, there seems to be no happier team than the Hornets, who will be represented by Paul, fifth-year power forward David West and coach Byron Scott. The positive frame of mind has nothing to do, presumably, with the laissez les bon temps rouler atmosphere of the Big Easy and everything to do with the Hornets' surprisingly elevated position: second-best in the more-formidable-than-ever Western Conference with a 34-15 record through Sunday.

"It's like the Hornets snuck up on people," says Boston Celtics guard Eddie House. "That's what happens in the league. You don't respect somebody, and before you know it, you're getting your ass kicked."

Ass-kickings, though, can come from almost anywhere in the West, which at week's end had an astounding nine teams with winning percentages better than .600 and a first-through-10th spread of only 7 1/2 games. Every day, it seems, a new contender springs up like one of those grinning targets in a Whac-a-Mole game. "We talk about it all the time," says New Orleans swingman Morris Peterson, "how one day you can be in first place, lose one game and you'll be in sixth or seventh."

From the safety of LeBron Land, Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown can afford to chuckle. "You could wind up four, five, six games over .500 and be sitting in 11th place and out of the playoffs," says Brown. "I look forward to sitting back and watching them battle it out."

The thing is, the West was already good before its teams -- two in particular this month -- decided to get even better. The Los Angeles Lakers' landing power forward Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies (who are apparently in full fire-sale mode) on Feb. 1 and the Suns' stunning acquisition of center Shaquille O'Neal on Feb. 6 made the inactivity of some needy teams in the East seem downright lame by comparison. "You mean to tell me the #@%$# Chicago Bulls couldn't find a way to get Gasol?" says one exasperated Western Conference assistant coach who asked for anonymity. "[The Grizzlies] had to send him to a team that already has Kobe Bryant? Are you frickin' kidding me?"

No joke. Neither is this: The most influential player in the NBA over the last six weeks might well be perimeter sharpshooter Kyle Korver. As soon as the 6' 7" Ashton Kutcher look-alike went to Utah from Philadelphia in a Dec. 29 trade, the Jazz took off; through Sunday it had won 17 of its 20 games with Korver in uniform to establish itself as a solid contender. Yet it's easy to overlook coach Jerry Sloan's team in the fully loaded West. Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, the third- and fourth-leading scorers in the NBA, respectively, have the 31-19 Denver Nuggets in the hunt. Yao Ming has been Wow Ming over the last month, reenergizing a Houston Rockets team (30-20) that was in free fall entering the new year. "You put Houston in the East," says Miami Heat center Mark Blount, "and they'd be a two or three seed." Too much has been made of Golden State's free-agent signing of Chris Webber, who turns 35 on March 1, but the Warriors (30-20) were a dangerous team even before they landed veteran insurance for their frontcourt.

Although the Celtics and the Detroit Pistons might demur, any of those second-tier Western teams would be a threat to win the East, never mind the powers at the top of the conference. Whether or not you like the Shaq deal, only a fool would count out Phoenix. The thought that Bryant will cede some of the offensive responsibility to Gasol in L.A. and come into the postseason rested is frightening -- in their four games together through Sunday, Bryant has averaged 21.5 points and Gasol 19.5.

The Dallas Mavericks (34-16) are good and trying to upgrade; they were identified by several sources as bridesmaids in the Shaq deal and were still actively pursuing New Jersey Nets point guard Jason Kidd at week's end. Even Kidd-less, the Mavs, who had the best record in the league last season, are formidable. "Dallas has really gotten better," says Philadelphia 76ers guard Willie Green, "even though it doesn't seem like it."

One team that hasn't improved is the San Antonio Spurs, but then, they are the defending champs. The Spurs were 32-17 at week's end and looking up at the Suns, Hornets, Mavs and Lakers. San Antonio can't seem to keep its Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili on the floor together -- collectively, they've missed 19 games -- and its acquisition of backup point guard Damon Stoudamire off the waiver wire paled in comparison with the moves made by L.A. and Phoenix. But if Parker comes back after the All-Star Game recovered from a left-heel injury, the Spurs will be dangerous in the spring. As Sixers forward Reggie Evans puts it, "The Spurs are one of a kind."

The Portland Trail Blazers were the fave flavor of the first half of the season; despite going 6-9 in their last 15 games, they will still battle for the eighth playoff spot if All-Star guard Brandon Roy stays healthy. Even if Portland doesn't make the postseason, the transformation from Jail Blazers to Hail Blazers -- the Rose Garden is once again filled almost to capacity nightly -- has been one of the feel-good stories of the year. And next season Greg Oden takes the court.

In terms of revival, though, no one can match the story in New Orleans, where the vibe seems even more upbeat in comparison with the stagnant atmosphere in San Antonio, Dallas and, until the arrival of the Big Standup, Phoenix. The elite teams in those cities have labored under something unfamiliar to the Hornets' franchise: the weight of expectations. "Everybody keeps telling me how unhappy we are, so we keep telling ourselves the same thing," says Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, whose club was four games off last year's pace through 50 games. "Truthfully, we're not that unhappy. But we're not as happy as New Orleans."

Part of the challenge for the Hornets, who finished 39-43 and out of the playoffs last season, is to believe that they truly belong. New Orleans has adopted a we're-not-all-that-surprised attitude about its rise, but really, the players are a little surprised. "CP [Chris Paul] and I always talked about closing the gap with the best teams in the West," says West. "We knew if we could stay healthy and stay together, we could do it, and it looks like we've done it. Just maybe a little quicker than we thought."

Quicker because they were a team of question marks at the beginning of the season. West and center Tyson Chandler, both still developing, still learning, were never considered surefire stars. No one knew if small forward Stojakovic could recover his elite-player status after missing 96 games in the past three seasons, including all but 13 last year after back surgery. And was Scott -- who never received much credit for leading the Nets to back-to-back Finals in 2002 and '03, getting fired for his efforts after feuding with Kidd -- the one to mastermind this daunting job in the wild West? "Patched together" is the way Orlando Magic executive Pat Williams describes the Hornets.

In one area, though, there was no question mark -- point guard. Paul, the 2006 Rookie of the Year, gets into the lane almost at will with a herky-jerky change-of-pace dribble and confounds defenders by darting in front of them once he gets a step. He's no Nash as a pure shooter (he was hitting 34.0% of his threes through Sunday compared with Nash's 47.0%), but he's better on the run and has a deadly teardrop bank shot, particularly from the right side. "It all begins with CP," says Stojakovic, "and everybody on our team knows it."

Paul's numbers (20.4 points, 10.9 assists, 2.57 steals) only begin to suggest his importance. What he's doing in New Orleans is analogous to what Nash did in Phoenix in 2004-05, when he won the first of two straight MVPs: lift a downtrodden team to elite status. New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas paid Paul, 22, the ultimate compliment earlier this season, telling Hornets assistant Darrell Walker, an old Pistons teammate, "I don't know whether I was that good when I was his age."

"Chris has his team near the top in the toughest division [the Southwest]," says Chandler. "He's the best player on our team. He's the floor general, making everyone better. He could get 25 points a night guaranteed, but he's sacrificing for the team. Man, I don't know what an MVP is if it isn't that guy." Peterson adds that the 6-foot Paul is one of the team's best defenders, "and that sets a trickle-down tone."

Plus, Paul has become a little nasty. The one knock against him was that he was too nice, too willing to ingratiate himself with teammates. Not anymore. "CP will definitely let you know what he's thinking," says West, "and I wouldn't want it any other way. As a rookie he was a little tentative, but now he speaks up. And he takes criticism too. From me anyway."

Indeed, Paul and West sometimes can be seen hugging one minute, then sniping at each other the next. Through such, uh, creative discussions, they seem to have mostly figured out when West should assume his position in the lane and when he should clear out to open things up for Paul. The 6' 9'' West is an old school player in that he eschews the three-point line and likes to play with his back to the basket. He has a smorgasbord of inside moves but can also step back and hit a jumper, his game a rougher version of that of Alex English, the NBA's 11th alltime leading scorer. "My goal is to be a threat from everywhere inside the three-point line," says West, who was averaging 19.6 points and 9.2 rebounds through Sunday. "I knew I needed to be dangerous in a couple of different ways to make it in this league." Few thought, though, that he'd make it well enough to be an All-Star.

Stojakovic was an All-Star in 2001, '02 and '03 with the Sacramento Kings. He may never be able to achieve that status again, but he seems happy and healthy -- "I have good days and bad days," says Stojakovic (16.0 points, 46.6% from three-point range), "but more good than bad" -- and content to roam in the wide-open spaces created by Paul's creativity and West's post-ups. In Sacramento, Stojakovic was always told that he needed to expand his game, play with his back to the basket or get better at creating his own shot. There's little need for him to do any of that in New Orleans.

What there is absolute need for is Chandler's energetic defense. Only four teams (Boston, Detroit, San Antonio and Houston) were surrendering fewer points than the Hornets at week's end, and New Orleans had outscored all of them. A major reason for the tougher D (opponents were down to 94.6 points per game from 97.1 last season) is that the Hornets are enjoying it more. "A lot of times you get stats because you're not playing good team defense," says the 7' 1" Chandler, who was averaging 1.02 blocks through Sunday after averaging 1.77 last season. "I'm all over the floor, but I'm no longer going after every shot."

Chandler is a rarity, a high draft pick (selected second by Chicago in 2001) who was treasured almost exclusively because of his defense. "I understood from the beginning that my defense got me here," he says. As a bonus, however, Chandler and Paul have been clicking on pick-and-roll lobs. Chandler is not as lethal a finisher as the Suns' Amaré Stoudemire or the Magic's Dwight Howard, but his ability to lurk when Paul begins to penetrate, then crash when Paul gets doubled, has added a dimension to the Hornets' attack. "I don't think you've seen my best offense yet," says Chandler. "Right now I'm a 12-12 guy [12.2 points and 12.3 rebounds], but I could get 18 points a game down the road. There's so many things I have to learn -- the midrange jumper, for example. But right now I hope I'm giving what this team needs."

Deftly moving all the pieces is Scott. This is his team in a way that the Nets (who had strong personalities such as Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson on the floor and a shrewd and well-respected NBA hand in the front office in president Rod Thorn) never were. Scott is the only coach for whom Paul has ever played. They are simpatico in the same way that Nash and D'Antoni and Parker and Gregg Popovich are simpatico. Scott and Paul often show up early at the Hornets' Alario Center practice facility in suburban Westwego to lift weights, Scott as dedicated an iron-tosser as any player. "B looks like he's training to be Mr. America," says assistant coach Walker. "I kid him that he's on the juice, but it's all hard work."

Scott, who earned three rings with the Showtime Lakers in the '80s, knows what it takes to win a championship and that the Hornets are still lacking playoff experience. But these days he deals in reality, not false modesty.

"San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas," Scott said recently, "are still the three best teams in the West."

And fourth best?

"You're standing in front of their coach right now," he said with a sly smile. "It's tough out here in the West, but we don't plan on going anywhere."

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