They’re finally back home, although the return to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans has been met with the second-worst turnstile count in the NBA. They are finally healthy — fulfilling the fears of other teams who looked at their injury-plagued roster with raised eyebrows and predicted future success.
The NBA is buzzing about the Hornets.
They’re on pace for a franchise-best season, will host the All-Star game next week with their head coach, Byron Scott, at the helm and two players on the Western Conference bench.
They are fighting neck and neck with Dallas and San Antonio in the brutal Southwest Division.
They have a strong inside game with much-improved Tyson Chandler and first-time All-Star David West.
They have outside shooting with a healthy Peja Stojakovic and new acquisition Morris Peterson.
And it’s all tied together by electric point guard Chris Paul, a first-time All-Star who is on the short list of MVP candidates nearly 50 games into the season.
“At times, they were this good last year but they had the injuries,” Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said. “The five starters played very few games together, but when they did they were very good. So it’s no surprise to see what they are doing.
“Paul and Chandler are getting better every year. West is playing at an All-Star level. Peja is healthy and guys like Peterson and (Janero) Pargo can shoot it. They have a nice, nice team.”
And they also have a pair of wins over Phoenix, setting the stage for a showdown tonight at US Airways Center that looks a lot better on paper now than it did when the schedule was released last summer.
Bowing to the gravity of the matchup, the Suns practiced longer than usual Tuesday, giving the game the kind of attention usually reserved for a Mavericks, Lakers or Spurs visit.
Phoenix lost 101-98 in New Orleans on Dec. 15 when Shawn Marion air-balled a potential game-winning shot in the final seconds. Then on Jan. 5 in Phoenix, the Hornets played without West (19.4 points, 9.2 rebounds) and spotted the Suns a 13-point lead before rallying for a 118-113 win.
Amaré Stoudemire lashed out in a postgame interview and then missed practice the following day as questions about Phoenix’s team chemistry reached full boil.
“I think people kind of slept on them and forgot about how good they could be,” said Suns guard Steve Nash, who suddenly has worthy suitors in Paul and Utah’s Deron Williams for his perch as the league’s top point guard. “They got the better of us this year, but we could have won both games. We deserve some of the credit for being down 0-2.”
Paul is averaging 20.3 points and his 10.8 assists are second only to Nash (11.8) in the league. He is averaging 24.5 points and 10 assists in two games against the Suns, getting the better of the two-time MVP in both matchups.
“He’s having an MVP season and playing great,” Nash said. “His teammates really feed off him and he’s the key.”
Does Paul remind Nash more of himself than any of the other young guns?
“I don’t want to disrespect him, but in some ways he does. He really tries to facilitate for his teammates and he’s good at keeping his dribble alive and probing the defense. All those things I taught him,” Nash said, joking.
Suns at Hornets
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: US Airways Center
Radio: KTAR (620 AM)
TV: Fox Sports Arizona
Records: New Orleans 32-15; Phoenix 34-14
Series history: Phoenix leads the all-time series 28-18 and 11 of the last 14 meetings, but the Hornets have taken both previous meetings this season.
Scouting report: Hornets — After winning nine straight and 12 of 13 to vault into the Western Conference lead, New Orleans has lost three straight and was spanked 110-88 in Utah on Monday night. Still, the Hornets are off to the best start in franchise history, own the second-best road record in the league (16-7) and have cleaned up against losing teams (19-4) and 21 of their 32 wins have come by 10 points or more. Chris Paul and David West will represent the team at the All-Star game in New Orleans next week and Byron Scott will coach the West. In the 31 games when Morris Peterson has hit at least one 3-pointer, the Hornets are 27-4.
Suns — In the middle of a six-game homestand (2-1), Phoenix needs a win over the Hornets to stay atop the West and send a message to the Hornets. Grant Hill remains the starter at small forward over Boris Diaw. The Suns are 15-5 since Christmas and only four games off last year’s 61-win pace, and that team had winning streaks of 15 and 17 games by this time. Over the last eight games, Amaré Stoudemire is averaging 23.8 points and 8.3 rebounds, making 69 of his 100 shots from the field. He has 19 double-doubles this season and after collecting 24 points and 11 rebounds in Monday’s win over Charlotte, the Suns are 16-1 when Stoudemire goes for at least 20 and 10.