Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol come up big
The Lakers' big men answer the challenge from the Hornets' Okafor and Landry
It's the same thing that had been greeting them over the past four games of the series.
Gasol first shoved away Landry's hands from his chest before hitting a hook shot. Bynum then pushed Okafor's forearm from his hip before turning around for an easy dunk. It was a constant battle under the basket, and for the first time this series, Gasol actually played like he was 3 inches taller than Landry and Bynum played like he was 2 inches taller than Okafor.
The Lakers' "big men" were finally beginning to play like "big men" against New Orleans' undersized frontline.
"They've kept our big guys off the blocks, so we were telling them to claim it," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "If they're going to allow them to be physical, be physical back. We got a couple offensive fouls for doing it, but at least we set a tone now for how we want to play."
Gasol, who combined for only 16 points and 11 rebounds in the first two home games against the Hornets, had 16 points and 8 rebounds on Tuesday night. Bynum finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Despite a solid night, Bynum's frustration with New Orleans' defensive strategy boiled over after the game. He shook his head as he talked about Okafor driving his knees into his rear end and Gasol's while pushing them in the back on each possession.
"I feel that it's unfair that they allow this dude to push Pau out and myself out," Bynum said. "He's pushing with two hands, using his knees, and I back him down and I spin and all of a sudden it's a foul on contact. I have to learn from it and hold my position down low."
Bynum didn't just hold his position. For the first time in this series, he and Gasol fought and scrapped for it.
"For me, if he's pushing me, I'm going to retaliate," Bynum said. "Tonight they called a couple offensive fouls, but it's important to hold your spot and not let people push you around."
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"I'm used to it," Gasol said. "You have to play through it and you have to fight back. They let them push and shove and you have to push and shove back. I established myself better. I was able to absorb the contact and get right back."
There isn't a single 7-footer in the Hornets' starting lineup, yet they had been beating the Lakers when it came to points in the paint, rebounds and second-chance points in this series by being the aggressors. It wasn't just players like Landry and Okafor who were showing the Lakers up. In Game 4, Chris Paul, generously listed at 6 feet, had 15 rebounds, while Bynum and Gasol combined for just 14.
That all changed in Game 5 as the Lakers won the battle for points in the paint (42-30), rebounds (42-25) and second-chance points (22-2).
"We have the advantage inside," Bynum said. "If we choose to use, great; if not, it's whatever."
Not only were Gasol and Bynum a force on offense, but they defended the paint and didn't let the Hornets score any easy baskets. They combined for five blocked shots and countless altered plays. It is a style Hornets coach Monty Williams has been preaching to his team to play since the postseason began, but he didn't exactly appreciate it when he saw his players hitting the floor during the game.
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"There was more of a focus to be physical tonight. A lot of it, it's just not basketball, so it's just one of those things we have to recognize and withstand that kind of play and overcome it."
It may have taken Gasol and Bynum four games and 10 days, but it seems they have done just that against the Hornets heading into Thursday's elimination game in New Orleans.
"We have to establish ourselves as bigs inside," Gasol said when asked what it will take to close out the series and prevent a possible Game 7 on Saturday night. "We have to make ourselves noticeable there and go and attack and be effective. We have to be strong and be aggressive and just play through whatever happens."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.