NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The reminder that Peja Stojakovic isn't quite the athlete he used to be comes each morning as he pulls his 6-foot-10 frame out of bed.
``Let me tell you something. I could be a weather man,'' Stojakovic said of how his surgically repaired back stiffens or loosens according to atmospheric conditions.
That hasn't stopped the Hornets' 30-year-old swingman from raining down 3-pointers at a near NBA-leading clip.
Sitting out only five of the Hornets' first 63 games this season, Stojakovic made 171 3-pointers heading into Friday night's home game against the Los Angeles Lakers. His average of making three 3-pointers per game led the NBA.
The Hornets, meanwhile, surpassed last year's total of 39 wins with more than a month left in the regular season and remain in contention for the top playoff seeding in the Western Conference.
``I couldn't imagine playing without him right now,'' Hornets All-Star point guard Chris Paul said. ``Every time we need a big shot he's always hit it. He's hit some of the biggest shots I've seen since I've been in the league and he's done it on maybe five or six occasions.''
Stojakovic joined the Hornets after signing a five-year, $64 million free-agent contract before the 2006-07 season. He proceeded to play only 13 games before having season-ending surgery to remove a disk fragment in his lower back.
Without him, the Hornets finished 39-43, narrowly missing the playoffs.
Stojakovic said his surgery went so well that he tried to rush his comeback late last season, which caused swelling and pain. He started working out again early last summer and had another flare-up, leading him to wonder how well he'd be able to handle an 82-game NBA season, not to mention the playoffs.
``I was hoping I was going to be pain-free, and the whole summer, I was on daily pain medicine just to operate,'' Stojakovic said, describing an ``irritation where you just have to rest, take pain medication and wait. You don't know what's going to happen.''
What has happened since November is a season so full of big shots that the New Orleans Arena crowd buzzes in anticipation every time Stojakovic gets the ball on the perimeter, similar to how fans in Sacramento did when Stojakovic played for contending Kings teams several years ago.
Stojakovic made a Hornets-record 10 3-pointers in a victory over the Lakers early this season. He followed that up with a game-tying 3 against the Dallas with 2.9 seconds left in regulation. The Hornets went on to win in overtime, ending an eight-year losing streak against the Mavericks.
Last month, there was his game-winning 3-pointer with 15 seconds remaining in Milwaukee, and his buzzer-beating, game-winning jumper in double-overtime at Phoenix, after which Paul tackled Stojakovic to the court in celebration, admittedly too fired up to be concerned with his teammate's back.
The 22-year-old Paul was in high school when Stojakovic, now in his 10th season, was an emerging star with the Kings.
``I was a huge fan of him then and a bigger fan now,'' said Paul, who counts setting up Stojakovic for open 3s among his favorite plays. ``At times, I may have more confidence in him shooting than he does. Every time he shoots it, I think it's going in.''
Stojakovic, a former two-time winner of the NBA All-Star 3-point shooting contest, was invited to participate in the event again last month. He didn't win this time, but he's continued to hit 3s when the Hornets need them, making seven during a victory over New Jersey this month.
``You've got to realize, Peja could get 30 (points) on any night,'' says Hornets All-Star forward David West. ``He defers to Chris, he defers to me, he understands his role has changed, but again, he's so dangerous in what he can do ... and that's probably the biggest thing he brings, that ability to make shots in any given situation.''
Stojakovic said he's felt progressively better and is nearly off pain medication, which he said he needs only after the Hornets play games on consecutive days.
``Still, after back-to-backs, I feel a little old, a little like I've been in a car accident,'' Stojakovic said.
Other than that, he's happy with his play, the Hornets' playoff push, and living in New Orleans, which reminds the Serbia native more of Europe than any other city in the United States.
He spends part of his free time helping the area recover from Hurricane Katrina, including hosting a charity bowling event in the past week.
When he and his wife, Alexandra, have someone to watch their two children, they visit jazz clubs or famous French Quarter restaurants like Arnaud's, known for its shrimp remoulade.
Then it's back to the arena, where he energizes fans with an array of tough fadeaways, turnaround jumpers, and of course, rainbow 3-pointers.
``It's great, having the crowd behind me,'' Stojakovic said. ``That's my goal: have this city recognize what we've been able to do this season. It's going to be very exciting for all of us.''

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