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Hornets-Mavericks Preview

4/16/2008

Most pundits expected the NBA's three Texas powerhouses to spend all season jockeying for playoff position in the Southwest Division.

They've done just that -- but it's been a fight for second place.

The New Orleans Hornets will take the court for the first time ever as division champions on Wednesday when they conclude the regular season on the road against the Dallas Mavericks, who will open the postseason in New Orleans with a victory in this game.

The surprising Hornets (56-25) went from a non-playoff team last season to champions of one of the tightest division races in recent memory, beating the Los Angeles Clippers 114-92 on Tuesday to wrap up the Southwest Division.

It was the first division title in the Hornets' 20-year franchise history.

"A lot of people had us not even getting in the playoffs," said center Tyson Chandler, who had 11 points and 11 rebounds for his 38th double-double. "I don't think any of us believed that. We all believed that we're one of the better teams in the conference. If you win this division it says a lot about the team because this is the best division in basketball."

Chris Paul had 22 points and 12 assists on Tuesday, his 55th double-double. No point guard other than John Stockton has had more in a single season since 1991-92.

Paul has dominated the Mavericks' backcourt when they've met this season. He's averaging 28.7 points, 8.7 assists and 4.3 steals in three meetings.

He had 31 points, 11 assists and an NBA-season high nine steals in a 104-93 win on Feb. 20, spoiling Jason Kidd's debut with the Mavericks after he was acquired from New Jersey.

The Mavericks (50-31) had the best record in the NBA last season before their stunning first-round playoff exit, but 2007-08 has been more of an uphill climb. When Dirk Nowitzki went down with a high ankle sprain on March 23, it looked like they would struggle to even make the playoffs.

But it was Nowitzki's 3-pointer with less than a second left on Thursday that lifted Dallas over Utah 97-94 and clinched a postseason spot.

The Mavericks will be either the No. 7 or No. 8 seed in the West. If they lose to the Hornets on Wednesday, they'll open up the playoff against the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers. But if they win their home finale, they'll head to New Orleans to open the postseason this weekend.

Dallas has won 12 straight at home against New Orleans by an average of 13.0 points.

On Tuesday, Dallas coach Avery Johnson made it sound like the Mavericks were already preparing to face the Hornets in the playoffs.

"We've played New Orleans three times already this year," Johnson told the team's official Web site. "When we play against them in the playoffs, it's going to be pick-and-rolls with Chris Paul and (Peja) Stojakovic is going to be shooting the basketball from Slovenia somewhere, and we're going to have to stop them."

Since clinching their playoff spot, the Mavericks have lost their last two games to non-playoff teams, opening up the possibility that Denver could pass them for the seventh seed if the Nuggets beat Memphis on Wednesday.

Johnson, however, isn't concerned.

"No matter what happens ... we still feel good about where we are," he said. "We are not the favorites this year. It's a totally different year, so we just need to go out there and let it fly, wing it, play some hard-nosed defense when this weekend comes and give ourselves the best chance to win."

Nowitzki hasn't been at his best when Dallas has met New Orleans this season. He's averaging 19.0 points, but shooting just 40.9 percent.

He had a season-low seven points on Dec. 14, but the Mavericks beat the Hornets 89-80 behind 25 from Jason Terry.