NEW ORLEANS -- Chris Paul emerged from a scrum under the basket, nimbly dribbling out to the perimeter to reset another Hornets possession.
A jubilant crowd rose to its feet, chanting, "M-V-P, M-V-P!"
Perhaps local fans are figuring out they don't need visits from players like Allen Iverson to bring them out to the games. They have a star of their own, not to mention one of the best teams in the NBA right now.
Down the stretch, the crowd repeatedly chanted superlatives in recognition of a masterful performance by the Hornets' third-year guard, who is New Orleans' best hope for a representative in the All-Star game when coaches elect the reserves this week.
"I was thinking they're exactly right," Paul said. "D-West and Tyson might be MVPs."
Even in a game featuring Iverson, recently elected an All-Star starter, Paul was the best player on the floor. Iverson also scored 23, but had only three assists and got little help other than from Kenyon Martin, who scored 18.
Hornets coach Byron Scott said he would be "shocked" if Paul wasn't invited to the All-Star game, but Paul insisted he has other short-term goals.
"The only thing that's on my mind right now, to tell you the truth, is to get my coaches in the All-Star game," Paul said. "I'm looking at the standings all day, every day, right now. I think that would be the greatest feeling for me if (Scott) could coach in that game."
That will happen if the Hornets (32-12) remain in their surprising perch atop the powerful Western Conference until Feb. 3.
"I am not ready to jump on their bandwagon, but they're pretty good and I'm not sure what weakness they have," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "Chris Paul is a great point guard. He can go anywhere he wants to go. They have size, they have shooters, they play as a team, they have a good bench .... One can argue that have an All-Star player at four positions."
Monday's matchup also featured a pair of centers vying for a reserve spot in the All-Star game in Chandler and Denver's Marcus Camby.
In this game, there was no comparison. Chandler finished with 10 points and 16 rebounds. Camby was a non-factor for most of the first three quarters. He didn't score until he made a free throw with 1:52 to go in the third period. He finished with three points and five rebounds.
"I definitely feel like I should be in the All-Star game," Chandler said. "I've worked hard all year, I've helped my team win basketball games and I really feel like that's what being an All-Star is all about. You should be rewarded for good basketball and winning and hopefully the coaches see it in my favor."
The second-best center in the game was Hornets reserve Melvin Ely, who had 16 points and nine rebounds in 23 minutes.
Recently elected All-Star Carmelo Anthony missed his fourth straight game with a sprained left ankle, and the undermanned Nuggets struggled to keep pace.
New Orleans built a 20-point lead in the first half and maintained that margin through most of the second half.
Iverson's driving layups on consecutive possessions gave Denver a glimmer of hope, cutting the score to 91-76 early in the fourth quarter.
But with Paul running the offense, the Hornets quickly sealed it with a 12-0 run that started when Paul set up Ely for a score inside and finished when Paul tossed an alley-oop on rookie Julian Wright's dunk.
New Orleans ended up shooting 51 percent for the game and outrebounded Denver 52-33.
"You've got to take your hat off to those guys," Iverson said. "They've got great players on their team. They're well-coached. They're going to be tough to handle."
|Chris Paul fuels the Hornets' win with his 23-point, 17-assist, nine-rebound performance. (Getty Images)|
|New Orleans (32-12) «||33||30||24||30||117|
|DEN:A. Iverson 23 Pts
DEN:K. Martin 9 Reb
DEN:A. Carter 5 Ast
|NO:C. Paul 23 Pts
NO:T. Chandler 16 Reb
NO:C. Paul 17 Ast
|Players of the Game|
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|A. Iverson, SG||39||8-16||6-6||1||3||2||23|
|L. Kleiza, SF||39||5-8||3-3||2||2||4||14|
|K. Martin, PF||36||9-17||0-1||9||3||2||18|
|A. Carter, PG||32||3-9||0-0||3||5||6||8|
|M. Camby, C||27||0-5||3-4||5||2||2||3|
|E. Najera, PF||27||2-7||1-2||7||1||1||6|
|J. Smith, SG||17||5-12||1-1||3||0||3||14|
|Y. Diawara, SG||11||0-2||0-0||1||1||0||0|
|V. Wafer, SG||7||1-4||1-1||2||1||0||3|
|S. Hunter, PF||6||2-2||0-0||0||0||1||4|
|C. Atkins, PG||Did Not Play|
|Nene, PF||Did Not Play|
|C. Anthony, SF||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|
|C. Paul, PG||38||7-20||8-8||9||17||1||23|
|T. Chandler, C||31||4-5||2-2||16||3||1||10|
|D. West, PF||30||5-10||3-4||9||0||3||13|
|P. Stojakovic, SG||29||6-12||3-3||2||1||3||19|
|M. Peterson, SG||18||1-3||2-2||0||1||5||5|
|J. Pargo, PG||30||6-13||0-0||2||7||5||13|
|M. Ely, C||22||7-9||2-2||9||1||3||16|
|R. Bowen, SF||18||4-7||0-1||3||1||1||8|
|R. Butler, SG||10||0-3||0-0||1||0||0||0|
|H. Armstrong, PF||6||2-3||0-0||0||0||1||4|
|J. Wright, SF||6||3-3||0-1||0||1||0||6|
|M. Vinicius, SF||2||0-1||0-0||1||0||1||0|
|B. Jackson, PG||Did Not Play|
|A. Haluska, SG||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|