NEW ORLEANS (AP) -As Chris Paul and fellow starters stepped onto the court late in the fourth quarter, the New Orleans Arena buzzed with anticipation.
It was a meaningless preseason exhibition against the Indiana Pacers. Yet, in this town full of recent pro basketball converts, the passion and brilliance with which Paul and his Hornets teammates play is now enough on its own to excite their burgeoning fan base.
The crowd of nearly 13,000 - larger than what the Hornets drew for a handful of regular season games last year - erupted with playoff intensity when Peja Stojakovic drilled a game-tying, straight-away 3-pointer. Near hysteria broke out when Paul fed Tyson Chandler for an alley-oop that put the Hornets ahead to stay in the waning minutes.
Clearly, the Hornets are hungry to build on their rapturous return to New Orleans last season, when they surprised both their competitors and the many critics of the club's decision to end their two-year displacement to Oklahoma City and come back to a community still scarred by Hurricane Katrina.
The Hornets won a franchise-record 56 regular season games, finished atop the brutal Southwest Division for their first division crown, secured the second seed in the mighty Western Conference and came within one playoff game of advancing to the conference finals.
In the process, empty seats steadily disappeared until sellouts became the norm.
``Some of the stuff we did last year is crazy to think about now,'' said Paul, who spent his offseason winning Olympic gold in Beijing. ``Those records are set, and now we've got to set one record for this franchise, and that's to win a world championship.''
In terms of success at the box office, Paul is having the transforming effect on the Hornets that hockey great Mario Lemieux had in Pittsburgh during the 1980s and 90s, when the Penguins attendance rose 46 percent. Lemieux also won two championships in Pittsburgh. Paul, now in his fourth season, believes he can reach similar heights in this below-sea-level city, given his supporting cast of fellow all-star David West, the 7-foot-1 Chandler, and the sharp-shooting Stojakovic.
Hornets coach Byron Scott agrees, arguing that the Hornets not only have enough talent to win the West, but enough to challenge the defending champion Boston Celtics and their ``Big Three'' of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
s emerged as one of the best young power forwards in this league, Tyson has emerged as one of the best young centers in this league and everybody keeps forgetting about Peja, who is still, to me, the best shooter in the NBA.
``So I don't look at us as a 'Big Three.' I look at those four guys as really our 'Big Four,' and if all those guys are playing at the level they're capable of playing, then we're very tough to beat.''
Incidentally, the Hornets improved their frontcourt depth luring James Posey away from Boston.
Scott said Posey, a defensive extraordinaire who also has shown a knack for making big shots while winning titles in Miami and Boston, was an instant hit with his new teammates.
``When I talked to the guys about us signing Pose, they were ecstatic ... that we were getting a guy they felt was a lockdown-type guy,'' Scott said. ``And the No. 1 thing they felt was he was a winner.''
When the Hornets fell in Game 7 of the second round of the playoffs to San Antonio last spring, Scott said he still thought his team was more talented and energetic than the Spurs. But the Hornets lacked the mental toughness and defensive savvy that comes with experience, he said.
``The thing I liked after that game is we had a bunch of guys in that locker room that weren't very happy, and hopefully that'll fuel the fire for this year,'' Scott said.
ornets' learning curve even more, the coach said.
New Orleans will also look for more production from reserve third-year center Hilton Armstrong and second-year reserve forward Julian Wright, both former first-round picks. The Hornets sold their late first-round pick last summer to free up cash spent on Posey.
Now the question is how the Hornets will handle the grind of an NBA season when they're no longer sneaking up on anyone?
``That's the role I kind of enjoyed back in the day,'' Scott said, recalling the three championships he won as a player for the Los Angeles Lakers. ``I liked everybody trying to come after us.
``These guys, I don't know how they're going to accept that. We haven't been in that position before,'' the coach continued. ``That's something we've got to learn about each other, if everybody's up to the task of being gunned after every single night. There's not a team in the league now that doesn't want to beat us.''
Not to mention that the Western Conference should be loaded again. The Lakers, Spurs, even the Utah Jazz, all have their own plans to contend for a title. The Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets are no pushovers, either.
Still, when Scott hosted a team dinner on the eve of the first practice of training camp, he let his players know how he thought they should stack up.
might be, that window of opportunity is not open for a very long time. So last year the goal was to make the playoffs and you jump to: Let's win a championship. Why not make the goal the ultimate and see what happens?''

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