Lakers have no solution for Chris Paul
NEW ORLEANS -- There wasn't much for Phil Jackson to say after he saw his team blow an early nine-point lead and later trail by as many as nine in the second half of their 93-88 Game 4 loss to the New Orleans Hornets on Sunday.
"We punked out there on the court tonight," the Los Angeles Lakers' coach said after the seventh-seeded Hornets tied the No. 2-seeded Lakers 2-2 in their first-round series.
More like got punked.
By Chris Paul.
The two-time defending champion Lakers are all of a sudden in a best-of-three series just to get to the second round, and Paul, the hottest player in the playoffs right now, is standing in their way.
The Hornets' point guard hasn't just been good, he's been historically great.
On Sunday he had a triple-double -- by the end of the third quarter. Paul finished with more points (27), assists (15) and rebounds (13) than any other player on the court.
"Chris Paul, that was one of the better performances I have ever seen in the playoffs," said Hornets coach Monty Williams. "A lot of guys have performances when they score. He scored, he dished it out, he rebounded. He made tough, tenacious plays."
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He set the table for the series in the Hornets' Game 1 win, going off for 33 points, 14 assists and seven boards, a statistical feat reached in the playoffs only four other times in NBA history by Oscar Robertson (twice), Walt Frazer and Magic Johnson.
The Lakers celebrated their defensive adjustment of putting Kobe Bryant on Paul in Game 2, but he still ended up with 20 points and nine assists. L.A. limited him to four points in the second half of Game 3, but he still finished with 22 and eight.
"You're going against one of the best point guards in this game, and when it's all said and done, he'll be one of the best that's ever laced 'em up," Bryant said. "That's just a bad, little dude, man."
Or as Paul put it: "There's nothing I'm trying to do new, I'm just being me."
The Lakers better do something new against Paul, and quick, or all their dreams of a three-peat could end before they ever really get started.
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Paul had just four points in the first half on Sunday, but it wasn't like the quiet second half he had Friday because it came with nine assists as Trevor Ariza had 16 points by intermission, and the Hornets had a four-point lead.
"We can have one or the other," said Andrew Bynum. "We can have him score points or we can have him getting people involved. We can't have both. He had 27 and 15 assists. That's nearly 60-some points; we can't allow that."
Said Pau Gasol: "We got to minimize his actions as far as whether we want him to score on that particular night, or we want him to give it up."
The funny thing is that both Bynum and Gasol spoke as if they were in charge of controlling Paul, when this series has been the complete opposite, with Paul controlling the Lakers' whole team.
"He made a lot of things happen out there," Jackson said. "A triple-double is nothing to sneeze at in a playoff game."
And he did it all with a bandaged right eye, a wrapped left thumb and a sore hip, making the Lakers look like the invalids.
In Game 1, he outrebounded Gasol seven to six. In Game 4, he outrebounded Gasol and Lamar Odom, combined, 13 to eight.
"We didn't expect or like the fact that he got that many rebounds," Gasol said. "We kind of expected that he'd get 20-plus [points] or 10-plus assists because he's done that a few times in his career, but the rebounds, I think we got to put more pressure on him as a team defensively and offensively."
In the postseason you expect to see the best players, but a superstar playing his best ball in the prime of his career is a scary prospect for his opponent.
The Lakers faced Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant in the first round last year after Durant was coming off a historic regular season when he became the youngest scoring champ in league history, but they were able to escape a threat by the Thunder when Ron Artest held Durant to just 35 percent shooting for the series.
But Durant is more one-dimensional.
You think you stop Paul, as Bryant thought he did with nine seconds left and the Lakers trailing by two as the Hornets' shot clock was about to expire, and he still beats you as he found a cutting Jarrett Jack with the pass that led to a 7-foot jumper to put New Orleans up by four.
"He just pressed the issue, that's all," Jackson said. "He pressed the game in the second half and delivered for them."
Now the Lakers are hard-pressed to find a solution to stop Paul, who seems to be getting better with every game.
As Paul walked off the floor, a New Orleans usher said, "I'll see you on Thursday [Game 6] for the elimination game."
He wasn't talking about the Hornets' season being over.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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