Lakers united by team defense
Challenged by a superstar in Chris Paul, L.A. congealed throughout the first round
NEW ORLEANS -- Ron Artest couldn't remember the way the Los Angeles Lakers' first-round matchup began against the New Orleans Hornets ("Did we lose the first game?" he asked earnestly), but he had no problem recalling a defensive possession from Game 6 not involving him that illustrated, to Artest, why Los Angeles won the series.
"In the last quarter, the second unit, Drew [Andrew Bynum] went out to the corner, they set a double screen on Matt [Barnes], and Steve [Blake] went to the post. People came behind him and we played it exactly how we're supposed to play it," Artest said, describing the sequence in graphic detail as if he was voicing play-by-play. "As a teammate, that's way more satisfying than anything."
Artest, who often seems distracted by outside interests, was so engrossed by what he was seeing during the Lakers' 98-80 series-clinching blowout on Thursday because if there's one thing that gets him going more than anything else it's defense.
The two-time defending champion Lakers won their first series of the 2011 postseason on the strength of their team defense.
You can certainly credit Andrew Bynum's dominance or Kobe Bryant's grit or both Pau Gasol's and the Lakers bench's redemption late in the series after stumbling out of the gates as contributing factors for their success, but the real reason was defense.
"This game's all about defense, and at this point in the playoffs, defense is what wins it," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said after L.A. held New Orleans to just 80 points and 42.9 percent shooting while forcing 15 turnovers in Game 6.
After Game 1, when they gave up 109 points and let New Orleans shoot better than 50 percent from the field, L.A. put the clamps down on D, holding the Hornets to 90 points or less in all four of their wins. In Game 2, they kept them less than 80 points (78) and 40 percent shooting (39.1). That, by team defense standards, is as impressive as a baseball batter going for 40 homers while batting over .300.
And all of this came against the two things that the Lakers struggle against the most -- quick point guards like Chris Paul and pick-and-roll offenses.
"We got a chance to really work on what probably is our biggest weakness -- screen-roll defense," Bryant said. "It's a big challenge for us to play and we played against one of the best to do it."
Paul had an historically great series, going off for 33 points, 14 assists and seven rebounds in Game 1 and a triple-double in Game 3. But L.A. finally did something with Paul in Game 6.
If not for a couple of late baskets with the Hornets already down by 20, they would have held Paul to single digits. He finished with 10 points on 4-for-9 shooting and 11 assists with five turnovers.
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Bryant had too much respect for Paul to take credit for L.A.'s D against him on Thursday. ("We did what? We didn't do anything. He was just tired. ... Tonight he looked a little tired but it wasn't something that we did defensively.") But Jackson saw growth in the way Gasol and Bynum handled the delicate balance of banging down low on one possession and then sizing up Paul on the perimeter the next.
"Our bigs got a lot better as we went through [the series] as far as playing screen-roll defense," Jackson said.
Said Bynum: "[We did] not allow them to take our space."
The only time this season the Lakers have truly looked like the favorites to win it all again was during that 17-1 stretch after the All-Star break, and the catalyst back then was the adjustments the coaching staff made to the team defense, igniting the players' interest level by creating a learning environment.
Dealing with New Orleans' pick-and-rolls made L.A.'s "malleable minds," as Jackson calls them, appear anew.
"I know it got our motors going," Artest said.
More so than engaging the gang, the Lakers' defense has brought the group together at a time when team chemistry cannot be overstated in its value to winning.
"It's kind of like this bond that starts to happen," Lamar Odom said. "Intensity picks up. Communication picks up. Eye contact amongst each other kind of picks up and collective energy and synergy picks up."
L.A.'s biggest celebrations on Thursday came following plays on the defensive end.
Artest flexed both biceps after stealing a ball from Paul on the baseline under the Hornets' basket and flipping it in for two.
Gasol pumped his fist and let out a loud "Yeah!" after rejecting a Marco Belinelli 3-point attempt in the corner, causing a shot-clock violation.
Bryant raised his finger to his lips to shush the crowd after making a deep 3 to put L.A. up by 10 in the third quarter ...
OK, well, Bryant is the No. 6 all-time scorer in NBA history so you'd expect him to groove off of his offense. But here's what he had to say about the defense:
"When things work [on defense], it helps morale," Bryant said. "It helps generate momentum and the right kind of energy that you need to win games -- even more so than offensively."
Assistant coach Chuck Person, who is the Lakers' unofficial defensive coordinator wouldn't give his full stamp of approval.
"It was good, but it wasn't great. Above average. Adequate. But, really good at times," Person said. "That's the type of D that we can play, and should play, on a consistent basis. We need to continue to keep moving forward with it."
As long as they do, they will keep moving forward through three more rounds all the way to the championship.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.