Kobe Bryant routinely takes over games and leads his Los Angeles Lakers to victories. The Western Conference is quickly learning to expect the same from Chris Paul.
Two top MVP candidates go head-to-head Friday when Bryant's Lakers visit Paul's New Orleans Hornets, with both teams eying home-court advantage in the highly competitive West.
The Lakers (45-19) hold a one-game lead over Houston and San Antonio for the conference's top seed, with the Hornets (43-20) just 1 1/2 games back.
While Bryant is one of the league's premier players, the Lakers star hasn't won an MVP award despite leading the NBA in scoring each of the last two seasons.
Paul, meanwhile, is in only his third season, but has forced his way into the MVP discussion by leading the surprising Hornets toward the top of the conference.
"I'd vote for him, and I'd have Kobe and LeBron (James) tied for second," said Byron Scott, Paul's coach. "But I'm biased."
Both Los Angeles and New Orleans have won four of their last five, with their stars leading the way. Bryant is averaging 32.4 points and 7.4 rebounds in his last five contests, while Paul is averaging 27.6 points and 14.0 assists in the same span.
Paul had 26 points and 17 assists Wednesday as New Orleans routed San Antonio, another contender for the West's top seed, 100-75. The Hornets made 58.7 percent of their shots.
"Chris Paul played awesome,'' Spurs forward Tim Duncan said. "(He) was just unbelievable. It felt like every shot he put up there went in or he made the right decision."
Paul had 19 points and an NBA season-high 21 assists in New Orleans' 118-104 road victory over the Lakers on Nov. 6.
When the Lakers visited the Hornets on Jan. 9, however, Los Angeles shot 54.9 percent and won 109-80, handing New Orleans its worst loss of the season.
This will be the Hornets' first chance to see center Pau Gasol in a Lakers uniform, and fortunately for New Orleans, it will have its best inside scorer back. All-Star David West returned against San Antonio after a three-game absence due to a sprained ankle, and scored 29 points.
Bryant is averaging 28.2 points - 3.4 fewer than he did in 2006-07 - but his supporting cast is much improved this season, and his all-around play combined with the Lakers' conference-best record has him at the forefront of the MVP race.
Los Angeles picked up its 14th win in 16 games Wednesday largely because of Bryant's brilliance. He scored 10 of his game-high 34 points in the final 8 1/2 minutes, lifting the Lakers to a 117-108 victory over Toronto.
After completing a 15-game stretch where they faced only five teams with winning records, Los Angeles embarks on a four-game road trip against teams that are a combined 168-86.
"It's time to have some fun and play some of the top teams in the NBA,'' forward Luke Walton said. "There's going to be hostile environments, every possession is going to be crucial. That's a lot of fun for a player."
Fortunately for Los Angeles, Lamar Odom is heating up as the team hits the road. The forward is averaging 17.5 points on 73.2 percent shooting over his last four games.
Odom isn't the only Laker shooting well. Guard Derek Fisher is averaging 52.0 percent from 3-point range in the same stretch, scoring 16.3 points per game.
Los Angeles has won three of four in New Orleans, including a 111-105 victory on March 23 when Bryant scored 50.
Copyright 2007 by STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited