The New Orleans Hornets aren’t quite as close to clinching a spot in the postseason, but they have to feel pretty good about their chances after riding Chris Paul to the top of the loaded Western Conference.
Two of the NBA’s top MVP candidates square off in Cleveland on Wednesday when James’ Cavaliers look to secure a playoff spot by taking on Paul’s Hornets.
Cleveland (40-31) can clinch a postseason appearance with a win and a New Jersey loss on Wednesday. The Cavaliers, who have the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference, are in that position thanks in large part to James, who’s leading the league with 30.8 points per game while averaging career highs of 8.2 rebounds and 7.3 assists.
Paul, meanwhile, is scoring a team-high 21.5 points while leading the NBA with 11.2 assists and 2.7 steals per contest. Those numbers have helped New Orleans (48-21) take over the top spot in the much more competitive West - percentage points ahead of the second-place Los Angeles Lakers.
The top nine teams in the West are separated by only six games, so Paul knows each of the Hornets’ 13 remaining games is important.
“It’s going to change maybe four or five times before the season’s over, unless we go undefeated,” he said.
Though Cleveland is closer to securing its spot in the postseason, James admits the reigning Eastern Conference champs are paying equally close attention to their race.
“You have no choice but to follow it,” James told the Cavaliers’ official Web site. “You have the standings in our locker room, you watch ‘SportsCenter’ and they show the standings. It’s going to go back and forth over the next (11) games, so we’re just going to hold down the fort and see what happens.”
As well as James has played, Cleveland has dropped four of its last seven games, including a discouraging 108-98 loss Saturday at Milwaukee.
“We got our behinds kicked,” said Cavs coach Mike Brown, whose club is one loss shy of last season’s total. “For some reason - and it doesn’t matter who we are playing - we think we can just show up and turn it on at the end of the game instead of coming out and playing the right way.”
Meanwhile, the Hornets have won four in a row and six of seven despite stiff competition in that stretch. They’ve beaten San Antonio, the Lakers, Houston and Boston over the last two weeks, and continued their surge by holding off Indiana 114-106 on Tuesday.
Paul had 31 points, 14 assists and three steals against the Pacers, and All-Star forward David West added 35 points and 16 rebounds.
“It’s all about playing well, performing well, doing whatever we’ve got to do to win basketball games,” said West, averaging 36.0 points in his last two games. “I know the guys are coming to me, especially down the stretch, and I’ve got to be ready to step up and play.”
West had 27 points and 15 rebounds as New Orleans beat Cleveland 86-76 in the teams’ first meeting Dec. 29. James was held to 21 points.
Paul struggled from the field in that game, going 6-for-18, but he finished with 20 points, six rebounds, nine assists and seven steals. The Hornets could use a similar performance from their All-Star point guard as they try to sweep a season series against Cleveland for the first time in franchise history.
Completing the sweep could be easier with Cleveland’s Ben Wallace expected to miss his second consecutive game. Wallace, acquired from Chicago in an 11-player deal before February’s trade deadline, has been suffering from back spasms for two weeks, and Brown wants to be sure his starting center is ready for the postseason.
“We just have to make sure going down the stretch that he gets enough rest with that back so that you can limit the effects going into the playoffs,” Brown said following Tuesday’s practice.