After Chris Paul set up the game-winning shot with less than a second left to lead the New Orleans Hornets to a sweep of their season series against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007-08, LeBron James called him the best point guard in the NBA.
Paul’s first two games of this season probably haven’t changed James’ mind.
In a matchup between two of the top young talents in the league, Paul and the Hornets look to continue their strong start in their home opener against James and the Cavaliers on Saturday night.
Paul emerged as a superstar last season, leading New Orleans (2-0) to its first winning season since 2002-03 and its first playoff series win since 2002.
Though he shot just 11-for-35 from the field in two games against Cleveland, Paul was effective in other areas, averaging 17.5 points, 14.5 assists and 4.5 steals as the Hornets won both games.
He was one shy of his career high with 20 assists, including one on David West’s game-winning jumper with 0.6 seconds remaining, in New Orleans’ 100-99 road victory March 26, prompting high praise from James, his teammate with the gold medal-winning Olympic team over the summer.
“That’s why he’s the best point guard in the league,” James said after that game. “He gives them confidence.”
Paul has been just as impressive so far this season, posting a double-double in each of his first two games and averaging 20.5 points, 10.5 assists, 6.5 rebounds and 3.0 steals. He was two boards shy of a triple-double in Thursday night’s 108-95 win over Phoenix.
“Man, that was a great team effort,” Paul said. “The way those guys started knocking down shots, as a point guard, it made my job so easy.”
Paul’s playmaking helped the Hornets shoot 48.8 percent from the field in winning their first two games on the road.
“The first two games of the season, it’s a good sign we’re hitting big shots when we need them and we’re getting big stops when we need them,” coach Byron Scott said.
“That’s what we’ve been all about the last couple of seasons - guys don’t fold under the pressure. I think we have the ultimate confidence in ourselves when it comes down the stretch and games on the line like this.”
As confident as they may be, the Hornets know they’ll be challenged by James and the Cavaliers (1-1). Cleveland bounced back from a season-opening loss to reigning league champion Boston with a 96-79 victory over Charlotte on Thursday night.
Daniel Gibson led the Cavaliers with 25 points off the bench, and James had 22 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in 30 minutes.
James played 30 minutes or fewer only twice last season - when he left with a sprained finger and when he came off the bench in his return from the injury.
“We had a lot of guys contribute and I got a lot of rest,” James said Thursday. “Coach believes in our roster and I believe in our roster. I don’t have to average 42 minutes like I have in the past because of our depth.”
James, last season’s scoring champion with 30.0 points per game, was held to 21.0 and 40.0 percent shooting (14-for-35) against the Hornets, one of only four teams the Cavaliers didn’t beat in 2007-08.
New Orleans, though, could be without two starters Saturday. Forward Peja Stojakovic is day-to-day after spraining his right ankle against Phoenix and center Tyson Chandler missed that game because of a sprained ankle he suffered in the season opener against Golden State.