Amidst the intensity of the battle for the top spot in the Western Conference - or perhaps because of it - Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant have emerged as the two leading candidates to be named NBA MVP.

Their final head-to-head meeting should go a long way toward deciding both.

Paul's New Orleans Hornets can put a stranglehold on the West's No. 1 seed on Friday when they visit Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers, who may be able to call themselves Pacific Division champions with a win.

The Hornets (55-23) have a 1 1/2-game lead over the Lakers (54-25) for the top spot in the tightly packed West, and can guarantee themselves home-court advantage throughout the playoffs with a win on Friday - which would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker over Los Angeles - and losses by Southwest Division rivals San Antonio and Houston.

The Lakers, meanwhile, can wrap up their first Pacific Division title since 2003-04 - when Shaquille O'Neal was their center - with a win and a Phoenix loss.

"It's probably the game of the year for us," said Hornets forward David West, who is averaging 20.3 points. "Obviously we know we have to defend Kobe, (Pau) Gasol is back healthy. We want to make sure we send a message in terms of us being able to compete with the better teams. There are a lot of things on the line."

At the start of the season, few tabbed New Orleans as a playoff team, much less a conference champion. But Paul's emergence has pushed the Hornets into the league's elite.

Paul, who is averaging 21.2 points and league-highs of 11.5 assists and 2.7 steals, made his first All-Star team and is drawing heavy MVP consideration.

"It would be an honor," Paul said. "It is an honor to be mentioned amongst it. If it does come, my teammates understand that they are the reason, they are the reason I am even being mentioned."

Paul had 19 points and 16 assists - his 52nd double-double - in the Hornets' 122-90 win over Minnesota on Wednesday, their franchise-record 55th win.

"We are not celebrating after this win," Paul said. "We won't celebrate until we clinch the Western Conference."

Paul has certainly looked like one of the league's best players when the Hornets have met the Lakers. He had an NBA season-high 21 assists in the teams' first meeting of the year, a 118-104 New Orleans win at Staples Center on Nov. 6, and has averaged 26.0 points and 14.3 assists in helping the Hornets win two of three against Los Angeles.

Bryant appears to be Paul's chief competition for the award, somewhat of a surprise considering he spent the offseason rumored to be on his way out of Los Angeles following a trade request.

But after a tumultuous summer, he's averaging 28.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists, numbers seemingly worthy of his first MVP award.

"It would be special. It would be a tremendous honor,'' said Bryant.

One of Bryant's reasons for requesting a trade was the lack of talent around him, but as his teammates have proven capable of contributing - seven other Lakers average at least 8.0 points - Bryant has begun to trust them.

"(It's his) best year ever as far as an overall team player,'' said Bryant's coach, Phil Jackson. "I think the judgment that I kind of make is, how much better do you make your teammates? This has been one of Kobe's finest years in that regard.''

Luke Walton led six Lakers in double figures on Thursday, scoring 18 in their 106-78 rout of the Los Angeles Clippers. But he was already looking ahead to their showdown against the Hornets.

"We can survive Chris Paul doing his thing,'' Walton said. "We've got to make sure the other guys don't kill us."

New Orleans has won its last two visits to Staples Center against the Lakers by an average of 15 points.


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