New Orleans point guard Chris Paul has a welcoming smile, boyish looks, and an engaging personality. He is currently starring in a commercial inviting tourists to come to New Orleans in the post-Hurricane Katrina era. At 6 feet, 175 pounds, he isn't physically imposing to the average person, let alone an NBA player.
But looks can be deceiving in this fiery MVP candidate's place.
"Off the floor he's nice, mild, and polite," said the Celtics' P.J. Brown, who played with the Hornets during Paul's rookie season. "But when he gets in between the lines, he's a whole different person. He comes out there and tries to take your heart. People around the league recognize that now.
"He's a winner."
Paul is the leader of a Hornets team that owns the Western Conference's best record at 49-21, and a five-game winning streak. Although he has some talented teammates in forward David West, center Tyson Chandler, sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic, and reserve swingman Bonzi Wells, the spotlight shines brightest on Paul.
Paul is averaging 21.6 points and 3.9 rebounds, and NBA bests of 11.4 assists and 2.71 steals. Paul, selected to the All-Star team this season, was the West Player of the Week from March 17-23, becoming only the third Hornet to win the award twice in one season, joining Larry Johnson and Glen Rice.
"Chris is having an MVP season, so it is no surprise for him to be recognized for his outstanding efforts," Hornets coach Byron Scott said. "He's been the catalyst for what we've accomplished not only in the last week, but for the entire season to this point."
Paul's name is being mentioned for MVP with Boston's Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Cleveland's LeBron James, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, Orlando's Dwight Howard, Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire, and Houston's Tracy McGrady. The success of the Hornets, the biggest surprise in the NBA season, helps Paul's candidacy. Hornets fans chant "CP3 . . . MVP" at the now sold-out games at New Orleans Arena.
Paul, however, expresses a humble point of view when MVP talk arises.
"To tell you the truth, I really don't think about it," he said. "It's an honor to be mentioned among those guys. Part of the reason is we're winning and we're having a good season, so we have to continue to do that."
Paul was in foul trouble during the Hornets' 113-106 victory over the visiting Celtics last Saturday, but he finished with 19 points and seven assists. Celtics coach Doc Rivers views Paul as a true point guard reminiscent of Isiah Thomas.
"He's in the line with Kevin, LeBron, and Kobe," said Rivers, about Paul being an MVP candidate. "He's a terrific player. But what I think sets him apart or sets him with that group is he's a terrific competitor and a terrific leader.
"He's closest to Isiah that I've seen and in demeanor, as well. He's a little ornery guy and that's what you loved in Isiah. I don't like [comparing], but they are very similar in how they play."
The Hornets haven't been to the playoffs since 2004. Paul has yet to make a postseason appearance and the Hornets don't have the playoff experience that most of the Western Conference contenders have, but he remains confident.
"Every game we go out I feel like we're supposed to win," he said. "Twenty-one losses are too many, if you ask me, and that's the way it's always been. I feel like every night when we go out, if we do what we're supposed to, we're supposed to win.
"[Teams] may [respect us]. They may not. It really doesn't matter. In this league, it doesn't matter who you play on any given night. We're all professionals. You never know who's going to win."
Celtics guard Rajon Rondo rode an exercise bicycle during yesterday's practice because of a right hamstring injury he suffered in the third quarter of Wednesday's win against Phoenix. "I'm playing [against New Orleans] for sure," he said . . . West is averaging 20.3 points and 9.1 rebounds and scored 37 against the Celtics last Saturday. "David West, you forget, is an All-Star. He's a heck of a basketball player," Rivers said . . . The Hornets are the only team the Celtics have not beaten this season . . . The Celtics announced that a limited amount of playoff strips, which start at $840 per seat, go on sale Monday at 10 a.m. The strips include all 16 possible home games, with a maximum two strips per order. For tickets, call 866-4CELTIX.