NEW ORLEANS (AP) -Chris Paul snatched a rebound under the Hornets' basket, raced the length of the court and crashed at full-speed over photographers on the baseline after converting the thrilling end-to-end layup.
``M-V-P! M-V-P!'' screamed the New Orleans Arena crowd.
True star power can galvanize a community. And that's exactly what Paul has done this season, putting the Hornets in contention to finish first in the Western Conference.
``Since All-Star break and on it's been unbelievable in here,'' Hornets coach Byron Scott said.
The days when former NBA star and current TV analyst Charles Barkley could compare the ambiance inside the New Orleans Arena to a mausoleum (as he did on national TV early this season) are over.
Paul, a first-time All-Star, has been the driving force behind the team. Now, he's close to becoming the first player in NBA history to average 20-plus points, 10-plus assists and three steals per game.
``It's never been done, so to even come close to it means you had an unbelievable season,'' Scott said.
And that Scott contends is why Paul should be the leading MVP candidate, trailed closely by the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant and the Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett.
``The first thing is his numbers, and the second thing is, does he elevate his teammates? I think Kobe's done that, as well as CP,'' Scott said. ``Then you look at the team, you look at the record. ... The Lakers were picked to contend for a championship. Boston, as soon as they made the trade and got Kevin and Ray (Allen), they skyrocketed to No. 1 in the East automatically. We still were at eighth or not even making the playoffs. And for us to be where we're at today, and you look at his numbers, I think that says enough.''
Scott may be biased, but other coaches have echoed his sentiments.
``They definitely have a legit argument that he's the best guard in the league,'' Toronto coach Sam Mitchell said after a Raptors loss to the Hornets late last month. ``He's definitely an MVP candidate.''
Hornets center Tyson Chandler has touted Paul's MVP credentials for weeks. More than 100 of Chandler's dunks this season have resulted directly from Paul's alley-oop lobs.
Chandler averaged 5.3 points and 9.0 rebounds in 2005-06, his last season in Chicago. This season, Chandler is averaging double figures in both categories. In a victory at Minnesota this week, Chandler was 6-of-7 shooting with five alley-oop dunks.
``Not only has he made the frontcourt players better this year, he's made every player better,'' Chandler said. ``He's made it easier and he plays the game the way it should be played - very unselfishly, ball movement, a flow to the game. ... He puts you in comfortable positions to score.''
In 2004-05, the season before the Hornets drafted Paul, David West averaged 6.2 points. Playing alongside Paul the next season, West scored 17.1 per game. This season, West is averaging 20 points and was a first-time All-Star.
The victory in Minnesota was the Hornets' 55th, setting a franchise record with four games still remaining.
Paul has led the league in assists and steals most of the season. Heading into Friday night's game against the Lakers in Los Angeles, Paul had reached 20 points and 15 assists in the same game 11 times, more than every other player in the league combined.
``It's an honor, but at the same time, I understand our team is the reason why I've had this success,'' Paul said of being considered an MVP candidate. ``The most meaningful thing to win an award like that would be for my team, because all those guys know how much they contributed toward our success.''
The Hornets' front office, too, has been campaigning on Paul's behalf. Having a league MVP would do wonders for their marketing in a region where sports talk still tends to start and end with the New Orleans Saints or LSU football.
The so-called ``CP3 for MVP'' campaign (Paul wears No. 3) focuses partly on basketball and partly on Paul's community service efforts, such as his visits with school children and helping rebuild homes in neighborhoods that flooded during Hurricane Katrina.
The Hornets enlisted dozens of children who've met Paul to make books of colored construction paper, glitter and sports photographs from magazines. They include short essays on why the 6-foot point guard is their ``Most Valuable Person.''
``They love him as a person, because that's someone they can relate to,'' Scott said. ``He's not 6-9. He comes to their school. He's pretty unassuming, very humble. So I think it's more of, they love him because of the type of person he is and the basketball is kind of a throw-in. He's everything we thought he would be on and off the court and a whole lot more.''

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