Paul, West have Hornets poised for playoffs

NEW ORLEANS – David West stared at the large flat-screen monitor in the center of the New Orleans Hornets’ locker room. Twenty feet and 350 miles away, Houston Rockets point guard Rafer Alston was yapping in high-def glory.

We beat New Orleans and people say they were without David West. Well, David West isn't a superstar. He may be a star to their team, but he's not a superstar like Yao Ming.

You hear that?, one of West's teammates asked, needling him. The video clip was paused then played back.

…David West isn't a superstar. He may be a star to their team, but he's not a superstar like Yao Ming.

Pause. Rewind. Play.

West isn't a superstar.

West smiled.

The rest of the NBA would be wise to heed the lesson that was soon learned by Alston. Disrespect these Hornets at your own peril.

West would go on to score 23 points against Alston’s Rockets that evening, then drop another 37 on Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics two nights later. New Orleans won both games, improving its record to 47-21, good enough for the highest winning percentage in the rugged Western Conference.

On Tuesday, the Hornets begin a six-game trek through the East that includes stops in Cleveland, Boston, Toronto and Orlando. Their coach gave them one set of marching orders: We’re coming back in the same position in which we left.

“That,” Bryon Scott said, “means we have to win.”

Anyone care to bet against them? In the past two weeks, the Hornets have taken down the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, Rockets and Celtics. New Orleans’ lone defeat during that stretch came in Detroit, with West sidelined and Paul slowed by injury.

If each was a “measuring-stick” game, as Scott labeled them, then the Hornets took the ruler to their opponents’ knuckles. On Saturday, they trailed the Celtics by 13 points in the second half and were still down eight to start the fourth quarter with point guard Chris Paul strapped to the bench by foul trouble. West and reserves Jannero Pargo and Bonzi Wells needed less than six minutes to put New Orleans ahead for good.

The Hornets’ defense limited Boston to 17 points in the final quarter. In the fourth quarters of their past three games, the Hornets have allowed an averaged 13.3 points. The Celtics, making the final stop of a five-game trip that had seen them win in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas, looked weary by game’s end.

“We might be the best-conditioned team in the NBA,” West said. “Coach makes sure of that.”

New Orleans was expected to contend for a playoff berth this season, but little else. Yet while the vicious West race has chewed up more than a few teams, the Hornets have survived.

“Nobody thought we would be anywhere near here,” Scott said. “I think everyone was even saying after All-Star weekend, ‘They’ll start losing games.’”

That hasn’t been the case. The Hornets have a respectable 16-10 record against the West’s other eight playoff contenders. The Spurs, in particular, would prefer not to see the Hornets again, having twice lost to them by 24 and 25 points.

The Hornets have continued to play with a chip on their shoulder, and for good reason. Though they’re poised to make the playoffs, they’ve never fought postseason battles together. That lack of experience has more than a few people skeptical of their chances to make a serious championship push.

“I guess the only way you can get it, is to get there,” Paul said. “Why not start this year?”

To do that, the Hornets must first navigate their way through a tough closing schedule. Only four of their remaining 14 games are at home.

“If they make it through unscathed,” one rival West executive said, “that will serve them well for the playoffs.”

While the rest of the West has taken notice of the Hornets’ success, so have the locals here. Saturday’s crowd of 18,280 was the Hornets’ largest of the season and their eighth sellout in 13 games. Team officials had to turn down boxer Roy Jones Jr. when he asked for extra tickets for his entourage.

Only two months after signing a new arena lease, Hornets owner George Shinn has told local government officials he wants to renegotiate another deal that wouldn’t contain the attendance benchmarks and escape clauses in the current pact. Displaced by Hurricane Katrina to Oklahoma City for two seasons, the Hornets could be here to stay.

“I’m so happy to be back here,” Paul said. “I don’t want to go anywhere. I love it. As soon as the season’s over I usually go right back home, but that’s why I want to get a place here because I love everything about New Orleans.”

The Hornets, likewise, want to keep Paul and they expect to sign him to an extension this summer. In just his third season, Paul has developed into one of the league’s best point guards and a legitimate MVP candidate, leading the league in assists (11.2 per game) and steals (2.7) while averaging 21.5 points.

As Paul’s game has grown, so have the comparisons to another small point guard: Isiah Thomas.

“He’s a tough little ornery guy and you love that,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “That’s what you loved in Isiah. He’s very much like that. They’re very similar in the way they play.

“I don’t think Isiah ever got enough credit for how well he handled the basketball. He was a magician with the ball and Chris Paul seems to have those same characteristics. But with him and Isiah, what makes them neat is they don’t show it. A lot of our point guards now want to show you all their stuff. They only show what they need.”

What Paul didn’t take long to reveal was his competitiveness. Celtics center P.J. Brown, then with the Hornets, noticed that early in training camp of Paul’s rookie season.

“Off the floor, he’s nice and mild, polite, all that good stuff,” Brown said. “But he gets between the lines and he’s a whole different person. He’s coming out there to try to take your heart. I think people around the league recognize that now. He’s a winner.”

Though the Hornets have followed Paul’s lead, they aren’t a one-man team. Center Tyson Chandler ranks fourth in the league in rebounding and is quick enough to keep pace with Paul on the break. Peja Stojakovic, having returned from a back injury that cost him nearly all of last season, has made better than 45 percent of his three-point attempts.

Scott thought his roster needed more depth, so the front-office added Bonzi Wells and Mike James in a trade that sent Bobby Jackson to Houston. James hasn’t cracked New Orleans’ rotation, but Wells, when motivated and conditioned, can be a beast of a matchup problem for opponents. Against the Celtics, he had a franchise-record six steals in the fourth quarter.

“He’s like a big JUCO center down there,” Chandler said, “punishing little guards.”

No Hornet, however, has provided more matchup headaches than the unassuming West, who was voted onto the All-Star team by the conference’s coaches. Having extended his range, he can score outside and in.

“I think the league knows who David West is,” Chandler said. “Especially opposing forwards.”

At least one point guard, however, is still learning. While West claims to not “concern myself with chitchat,” Alston’s comments rankled the rest of the Hornets. No one more so than Paul, who accused Alston of riding Tracy McGrady’s “coattails.”

“Man, it was the truth,” Paul said. “You can’t say that about a guy who’s been an All-Star when you haven’t.”

That didn’t stop the Hornets from making sure West knew what was said about him. Alston’s words were cued. Then played again.

West smiled. Some 2½ hours later, as has often been the case with these Hornets, the last laugh would be his.

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