Fiery relationship between their two stars drives the Hornets

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"I jumped his ass about missing the free throw,'' West told me.

That's pretty cold, I said, yelling at a teammate for missing a free throw.

"But you expect during the course of a game, when you need every basket, you just expect guys to make shots,'' West explained. "I barked at him and [Paul said], 'My bad, my bad.' "

West looked up with a roll of his eyes.

"And then I got an 'and-one,' and I missed a free throw. Two plays later and I come down and do the same thing.''

Did Paul take the high road? West shook his head.

"He did the same thing.''

This image of the two stars yelling at one another led a reporter to ask West after the game if his relationship with Paul was in trouble.

"No, it's nothing,'' West recalled saying. "I was just on him about missing a free throw when we were trying to put the team away, and things happen like that.''

Said Hornets coach Byron Scott: "On the court, people probably would misconstrue their conversations because they are screaming and yelling."

Scott said this because he himself has misconstrued those arguments.

"I asked them a couple of years ago if they were having problems,'' the coach said. "Because I didn't know. I'm looking at them screaming at each other, and I had to pull them to the side individually and say, 'CP, are you having a problem with D-West?' 'D-West, are you having a problem with CP?' And they're like, 'No, coach, we're cool.' And I'm like, 'Are you sure? Because I see you guys screaming and yelling.' But they both said, 'Coach, we're just trying to win.'

"A normal fan would say these guys don't get along. But they get along extremely well, because they both want the same thing. They both want to win.''

This is the open secret behind the Hornets' unexpected rise to contention. How has a 6-foot point guard -- viewed by many as too small to succeed -- elevated himself to MVP consideration? How has a 6-9 power forward -- forsaken as too small against the league's most powerful athletes -- thrived as an All-Star in the top-heavy Western Conference? The answer is that Paul and West want very, very, very badly to win -- and there is nothing they won't say to help push the other along.

"When I first saw it,'' said guard Morris Peterson, who joined the Hornets last season, "my first thought was, Oh, man, they can't be arguing.''

Because a bad relationship among the best players would doom any team.

"But then when I heard the conversation, it was just a basic basketball thing,'' Peterson said.

Which, in turn, acts like a slingshot, turning bad leadership into the very best kind.

The relationship between Paul and West must be transcendant, because no one was predicting the success that was to come. The Hornets' roster had no business challenging Kobe Bryant's deep rotation in Los Angeles or the Hall of Fame trio in San Antonio. Paul's emergence as an MVP candidate was a huge surprise, considering he began last season as the consensus No. 2 point guard in his draft behind Deron Williams. West was a No. 18 pick after staying four years at Xavier, signaling a dearth of upside. The Hornets were able to acquire Tyson Chandler from Chicago because he was limited offensively, Peja Stojakovic is a 31-year-old shooter with a history of back trouble, and their bench remains especially thin up front. Yet the Hornets (14-7) have survived a poor start to once again lead the Southwest Division, underlining confidence that they can return to the second round of the playoffs after very nearly knocking off the Spurs at that stage last season.

"There are still big, major steps we need to take in order to get better,'' said West, who leads the Hornets with 20.3 points. "Hopefully we remain humble and understand we haven't accomplished anything.''

Humility shouldn't be a problem. It is, quite obviously, a strength that sets the example for teammates who see Paul and West holding each other to the highest standards.

"Nobody is immune to getting yelled at,'' Scott said. "The great thing about it, to be honest with you, is they police each other so much that it makes my job easier. I very rarely have to pull those guys out and start yelling at the team and things like that. I might do that four, five, six times during the year, but they're getting on each other so much that I have to sometimes come in and say, 'Hey, hey, relax. Relax. This is what we've got to do.' And I have to bring everybody back down.''

If they behave like a married couple, arguing and instantly making up, it's because they're as close as any starring duo in the league.

"Even though it isn't something I would tell him every day, David would probably be a guy that I look up to the most,'' said Paul, who is five years younger than the 28-year-old West. "It's crazy that we're on the same team, but just him as a man -- I really look up to him. I've said since my rookie year I wouldn't rather have another power forward on my team.''

People didn't believe those words when Paul was a rookie, even as West was averaging a breakout 17.1 points for the hurricane-displaced Hornets in Oklahoma City. He wouldn't rather be teaming with Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki? But both Paul and West had played for the late Skip Prosser, who had been at Xavier before recruiting Paul to Wake Forest.

"My coaches talked about him all the time, so I knew who David West was,'' said Paul, who is averaging 19.8 points and leads the league with 11.9 assists and 2.8 steals. "My girlfriend and his wife are best friends now. He has a daughter, I love his daughter to death. We both live in North Carolina -- he lives in Raleigh and I'm still in Winston-Salem.''

West tends to be quiet while Paul is chatty in the locker room. They bring out the best in each other on the court, even if it sounds like the worst of a grade-school argument on a playground.

"I'm talking and I'm yelling all the time, and sometimes people don't realize that's our relationship, and that after the game is over me and him are good to go,'' Paul said. "But over the course of the game, to tell you the truth, me and him probably hate each other."

The Hornets had told me all about their love-hate dynamic before their loss last Friday in Boston. But I wanted to see signs of it myself, and I didn't have to wait long. It was revealed in the first quarter when West up-faked so earnestly as to persuade 6-11, 253-pound Kevin Garnett to land splat upon him. As West wobbled himself back up, trying to straighten himself without revealing pain to his combatants, who did he find yelling in his face but his little All-Star point guard.

You didn't show much sympathy there, I told Paul afterward.

"Ain't no sympathy,'' Paul said. "That's what we're out here to play for, that's why you lift weights all day, every day. He's the first one in the weight room other than the coach every day.'' Note the hidden compliment.

I walked across the locker room to find West wearing ice around his back, knees and elbows; an athletic trainer was lacing numerous long fingernail cuts along his shoulders and arms with some kind of antibiotic gel. When I recalled Paul's unsympathetic response, West grimaced a smile.

"Yeah, he was a little rough,'' West said.

We went through another play when West beat Garnett left-handed from the high post for a dunk. Paul celebrated by scolding West for not making the move earlier.

The bottom line is that they need each other.

"It's like Stockton and Malone,'' Scott said. "Stockton couldn't do it all without Malone, Malone couldn't do it all without Stockton.''

Were Stockton and Malone ever so much like Felix and Oscar? But of course that isn't the biggest question facing these Hornets. The real issue is how they can ever find a way to overcome their more talented rivals in the West.

"By continuing to stay on each other's butts,'' Scott said. "That's the only way they can do it, by continuously pushing each other to be the best that they can be.''

So watch Paul and West closely with this in mind: If they ever stop arguing, if they should ever stop caring about each other, that's when the Hornets will be in trouble.