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Paul also has been inclined to spread around credit for the Hornets’ surprising return to the postseason, one season after going through two coaches and missing the playoffs. In the locker room after the Hornets’ playoff-clinching victory over Houston a couple weeks ago, one of Paul’s first remarks concerned how happy he was for the coaching staff.

Paul repeatedly has praised the work ethic, approach and intelligence of Hornets rookie coach Monty Williams, who in turn has referred to Paul as “a monster” after victories in which the star guard took over in the clutch.

“He has had a lot of pressure on him all year,” Williams said. “Stuff that everybody else says about his future … we’ll deal with those things when they come up, but for me it doesn’t change my job. He’s been a pro. He’s been a cog in this wheel all season long. The guy should be applauded for that.”

Although Paul’s scoring average of 15.8 this season has been the lowest of his career, Williams pointed out that his system, which puts a premium on defense and often slows the game down, plays a role in that. Williams added that Paul’s average of 9.8 assists would have been better if his teammates made more open shots.

Paul, who’ll be 26 in May, also played the first half of this season with a brace on his left knee, which was surgically repaired last year.

Although Paul said he is healthy now, coaches say he’s played through pain, and played well, on numerous occasions.

“He’s gone out and played at a very high level all year and he’s played when he’s been hurt, so I think his heart is into this team 100 percent,” said Malone, who was a Cleveland assistant when LeBron James played for the Cavaliers. “He’s made his teammates better and made us better as coaches, which, to me, is a true sign of greatness. He’s a special individual and we’re going to need him.”