Lakers have edge over Hornets
L.A. cautions nothing is certain, but it's clear the champs should roll over New Orleans
The Lakers needed overtime in Sacramento in the final game of the season to secure the No. 2 seeding in the Western Conference, and the Hornets couldn't avoid the two-time defending champs by falling to No. 8, despite the fact they lost their last three games of the season by an average of 22 points.
The Lakers host a Hornets team they swept 4-0 during the regular season, but Kobe Bryant cautioned that could provide L.A. a false sense of confidence going into the series, which begins Sunday at Staples Center.
"Beating a team like we did this season, they have things that they feel they can improve on, things that they can work on and have a clear way that they want to go about playing," Bryant said. "So it's difficult to beat a team that many times in a season."
Bryant may be right. It could be difficult for the Lakers to win four more games in succession against a New Orleans squad that Lakers coach Phil Jackson described as a "feisty" team full of "survivors."
But it is even harder to imagine the Hornets beating the Lakers four times to pull off the first-round upset.
With that said, here are four keys to the series:
1. Exploit their big bodies
"Our strength against the Hornets is our size," Jackson said. "We got a situation in which we got two guys that are, sizewise, effective against them. Their guys are active, mobile, good offensive rebounders. They've hurt us in their way and we've hurt them in our way."
The Lakers' way has hurt the Hornets more, however.
The fourth meeting between the teams this season was the first for the Hornets without 6-foot-9 power forward David West, after he went out for the season because of an ACL tear in late March. Carl Landry, who is listed at 6-9 but is really a couple of inches shorter, started in his place. Despite Landry's putting up good individual numbers (24 points and 10 rebounds), the Lakers won by 18. 7-foot Pau Gasol had 23 points and 16 rebounds and 7-foot Andrew Bynum had 13 points and five boards in just 22 minutes as he was saddled with foul trouble.
The Hornets start 6-10 Emeka Okafor at center. While Okafor is known as a smart player and a strong player, he isn't a long player. The Lakers' big men should be able to "play volleyball" over the top of Landry and Okafor, to borrow a phrase from Derek Fisher.
All eyes will be on Bynum in Game 1 as he plays for the first time since he suffered a hyperextension of his right knee that resulted in a bone bruise. Perhaps working in Bynum's favor is the fact that the Hornets already provided fertile ground for Bynum to make a comeback earlier in the season. He ended his seven-game trial period as a substitute and made his first start of the season in December against the Hornets, putting up 18 points and six rebounds in a 15-point win by the Lakers that ended a three-game losing streak.
Of course, as Gasol has expressed before, the Lakers' big men can't pass the ball down low to themselves on offense. L.A.'s guards and wings have to make a concerted effort to feed them. Gasol averaged only 11 shots against New Orleans (his season average was 13.7), but Bynum averaged 9.8 shots in the four games against the Hornets (his season average was 7.6).
2. Slow down Chris Paul
Paul is the Hornets' best player and one of the NBA's premier talents; he led the league in steals with 2.4 a game and was fourth in assists with an average of 9.8.
He did not particularly scorch the Lakers this season, finishing two of their meetings with meager point totals of 10 and 12, but he did average 10.3 assists in the four games.
New Orleans will run pick-and-roll on the majority of its possessions. That should be nothing new for the Lakers after facing coach Jerry Sloan, Deron Williams and the screen-roll savvy Utah Jazz in the playoffs each of the last three seasons.
The key will be to not allow Paul too much over-penetration, which would put added pressure on the still-recovering Bynum to be the lone line of defense at the rim. This could lead to easy dump-offs by Paul to the Hornets' big men when Bynum leaves them to stop the point guard, or there is the possibility that Bynum could take himself out of the game completely because of foul trouble.
Much of the responsibility will fall on the 36-year-old Fisher to go individually against the 25-year-old Paul, and it will be a daunting task, especially with the Lakers' revamped defense dictating for the Lakers' big men not to come help out on the perimeter on pick-and-rolls, leaving Fisher out on an island against Paul. Fisher must stay as close to Paul as possible and not allow separation with Paul's quick first step. The Lakers might also want to gamble and go under the screens set for Paul, daring him to shoot. Paul made only 26 percent of his 3-pointers (13-for-50) after the All-Star break.
The Lakers will be without their quickest player, Steve Blake, for Game 1 as he recovers from the chicken pox, so that could mean Bryant and Shannon Brown will guard Paul on occasion. Both of them will have to maintain their energy after defending him because the Lakers count on their offense on the other end.
3. Get the bench going
The Lakers may have the best bench player in the league in Lamar Odom, who is the favorite to win the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award this season, but their bench as a whole has been pretty mediocre.
Brown's scoring average has dipped for four straight months, going from 9.1 points in January to 8.5 in February to 6.8 in March and then 6.5 in April.
L.A.'s next two key contributors on its second team, after Odom and Brown, are Blake and Matt Barnes, and both missed the Lakers' final two games.
The Hornets bring Willie Green (8.7 points), Jarrett Jack (8.5 points) and the big-men duo of Aaron Gray and Jason Smith (7.4 points and 7.3 rebounds, combined) off the bench for significant minutes, making L.A.'s depth a potential advantage.
4. Stay in the moment
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This series marks the beginning of the final march of Jackson's "last stand" season. No doubt talk of Jackson's legacy will permeate throughout the Lakers' postseason run.
"It's the elephant in the living room or in the bedroom, depending upon where you want to put that elephant," Jackson said of his impending departure.
If the Lakers win Game 1, the amazing statistic of Jackson-coached teams going 48-0 in series in which they win the first game is sure to be trotted out -- providing the first opportunity for Jackson's career, and not the Lakers' current postseason, to dominate the national conversation.
"I've thought about it, probably more than others," Bryant said. "You have the responsibility to try to make this last season and make him go out the way he should go out, and that's on top."
Jackson's finishing his coaching career with an unprecedented fourth three-peat has very little to do with the Lakers beating the Hornets, however. For the time being, Bryant and the rest of the Lakers are better served by focusing on reducing turnovers and sprinting back in transition defense -- two areas that hurt them during their late-season five-game losing streak.
"I'm looking forward to going through this thing giving every bit of energy I have right until the final part," Jackson said Thursday. "It's not about the days off or thinking about what it's going to be like next year at this time or anything like that. My thoughts are about today and finishing our day out with the team this afternoon and tomorrow about the practice and how we're going to set it up."
Prediction: Lakers in 5.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.