NEW ORLEANS -- The Power Rankings are finally here, and they're saying we've got one heck of a game to look forward to in The Big Easy tonight.
That the Lakers debut at No. 1 will surprise nobody after they stayed unbeaten with a 106-99 win in Dallas last evening. That the other unbeaten, Atlanta, stands at No. 2 is similarly not a brow-raiser. However, at No. 3, just after the two unbeatens, stand the Hornets. One of their two defeats was against the mighty Hawks (said without a trace of irony for the first time in eons), while three of their four wins have come against top-10 ranked teams (Miami, Phoenix and Cleveland).
While the Lakers are head, shoulders and half a torso above everyone else right now, outpacing No. 2 Atlanta by nearly nine points, New Orleans is by far the toughest competition they've faced. The Power Rankings aren't too high on Houston yet, ranking the Rockets just 14th, and the Lakers' other victims all reside below 14th on the chart.
I'm just back from the Hornets' morning shootaround (L.A. flew in from Dallas late last night and didn't bother), and one of the main topics was how much better the Lakers have been at the defensive end. L.A. ranks first in defensive efficiency, and if that keeps up we can pretty much start planning the victory parade right now and dispense with the charade of playing seven more months to determine a champion.
So what's different? How are they so much better at that end?
"I've watched just about all their games," Chris Paul said. "They're a lot more active; they communicate a lot more; and they're using their size. You watch Lamar Odom now on tape -- his hands are up; he's like a KG guy that's all over the place in the lane. And you've got 7-[foot]-1, 7-2 in [Pau] Gasol and [Andrew] Bynum starting at the 4 and 5."
"They're packing it in," Hornets coach Byron Scott said. "The ball's on the wing, they've got five guys in the paint. The ball's up top, they've got the guy that's guarding him and the other four in the paint. They're doing a heck of a job of getting out to shooters. [And] they're more committed to what they're doing this year after what happened last year."
There's another edge to this game as well, at least for the home folks: L.A. has what New Orleans wants. The Lakers edged the Hornets by a game for the top seed in the conference last year, and Kobe Bryant edged Paul for the MVP award.
"It's a statement game for us," said Paul, who, by the way, insisted he has no MVP envy. "They're the Western Conference champions. We have to measure ourselves against those guys."
Of course, scoring on the Lakers is only half the battle. The Hornets also need to stop Kobe, and it might be more difficult since Morris Peterson is questionable with a sore knee that he said he hyperextended in practice earlier this week. If he can't go, Rasual Butler will start, but expect free-agent pickup James Posey to see heavy minutes against Bryant after his Finals performance against him in June.
And for all the talk about the No. 1 team in the Power Rankings, we should remember tonight's contest also features a pretty darn good team that ranks No. 3.
"We just have to be aggressive," Paul said. "We have great shooters; we have guys who can attack. We're not too bad ourselves."
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.