Lakers' early guard changes succeed
By switching Kobe Bryant to guard Chris Paul, the Lakers limited the Hornets' leader
LOS ANGELES -- Every NBA playoff series comes down to the adjustments. The changes made from game-to-game in these best-of-seven showdowns seemingly grow to become almost living, breathing things.
The Los Angeles Lakers, the heavy favorites as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and trailing the seventh-seeded New Orleans Hornets 1-0 to start their first round series, didn't want to wait until they were on their last breath to make a major move.
"It made us feisty," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said of the change on Thursday before his team headed to the airport to fly to New Orleans for Game 3. "There was a real aggression that went into the game."
The 32-year-old Bryant often went chest-to-chest with the 25-year-old Paul, picking up the point guard full court and using his 6-foot-6, 205-pound frame to pound on the 6-foot, 175-pound Paul.
Bryant's point total may have dipped from 34 points on 13-for-26 shooting down to 11 points on 3-for-10 as he expended extra energy chasing around the Hornets' speedster, but Paul's production slipped to 20 points and nine assists on 45.5 percent shooting.
"Fish [Derek Fisher] and I talked about it and Fish is better at chasing off of screens and I'm better on-ball," Bryant said after the game as Fisher drew Marco Belinelli instead. "We compliment each other that way, so I'll take Chris and he'll chase off screens."
As a bonus, the shift worked two-fold as Belinelli went from 10 points on 4-for-9 shooting in Game 1 to four points on 2-for-9 shooting in Game 2.
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"We talk through lots of stuff," said Fisher, whom Bryant described as being "reluctant" of the switch at first when he brought it up in the two days of practices between Games 1 and 2. "We're just trying to do what we feel like is best for the team defensively. Chris Paul is like a really good quarterback, a great quarterback, in football so you can't give him the same look all the time. We're just trying to mix some things up and keep him guessing as much as he's trying to keep us guessing."
On Sunday, there were 70 possessions for the Hornets in the half-court set when Paul and Bryant were both on the floor, and Bryant checked Paul only once, in which another New Orleans player missed a shot but the team got an offensive rebound then made a free throw. In the other 69 possessions, the Hornets scored 82 points (1.19 points per possession) while shooting 31-for-59 (52.5 percent) with just two turnovers.
On Wednesday, there were 26 possessions when Bryant guarded Paul when they were both in the game and the Hornets were in their half-court offense and 49 when he didn't. With Bryant on Paul, New Orleans scored 22 points (.85 points per possession) on 7-for-17 shooting (41.2 percent) with six turnovers. When the rest of the Lakers manned Paul when Bryant was in the game, the Hornets scored 43 points (.88 points per possession) on 16-for-41 shooting (39 percent) with four turnovers.
Just by having Bryant guard Paul for part of the time, the Lakers succeeded in taking the Hornets' floor leader out of his comfort zone.
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"It cut the head off their snake," said Matt Barnes.
The move made the Hornets' entire offense worse, as they went from 109 points on 51.9 percent shooting with only three turnovers in Game 1, to 78 points on 39.1 shooting with 16 turnovers in Game 2.
The timing of the change was interesting as there was still a lot of series left to play, and sometimes a team will hold a switch like that in their back pocket until it's absolutely necessary to use.
"We consulted the astrologists and the Tarot card people and that's what they came up with. They decided that was good," joked Jackson about the going to Bryant on Paul so early on in the series.
Last season, Bryant waited until Game 5 of the first round against Oklahoma City to guard Russell Westbrook after the Thunder had tied the series 2-2. Through the first four games of the series, Westbrook was averaging 21.8 points on 55.2 percent shooting. With Bryant on him in Game 5, he managed just 15 points on 4-of-13 shooting (30.8 percent), the Lakers won by 24 and went on to win the series in Game 6.
In the second round last year, however, the Lakers didn't hold off at all in moving Ron Artest off of Utah's small forward and onto their dynamic point guard in Deron Williams. They did it starting with Game 1 and went on to a four-game sweep.
"We're just trying to utilize all the resources that we have," Fisher said. "We have guys that can guard multiple players, multiple positions, so why not take advantage of it?"
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Peter D. Newman of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.