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 71/2 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 (sidebar) 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?"