With the heavily favored Lakers now locked up 2-2 in their series with the New Orleans Hornets, we asked our Lakers coverage team to respond to five key questions.
1. Are the Lakers in real danger of losing this series?
Dave McMenamin: Yes, they are, and I say this not because I think they will lose, because I don't think that will happen, but because it's now a best-of-three series, with L.A.'s best player dealing with a sprained ankle/swollen left foot while the only thing New Orleans best player, Chris Paul, is swelling with is confidence.
Arash Markazi: After watching the Lakers win a similarly tough first round series last year against Oklahoma City and a similarly feisty second-round series two years ago against Houston, I don't think the Lakers are in danger of losing the series. I simply cannot envision New Orleans winning twice in Los Angeles and beating the Lakers four out of seven games. That being said, I do believe the Lakers are in danger of putting players like Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum at risk of further long-term injuries by extending the series.
Brian Kamenetzky: I don't think they will, but the danger is absolutely real. Particularly with Kobe Bryant potentially hobbled. The Lakers have superior talent, but had the same superior talent through the first four games, and lost two.
Andy Kamenetzky: I wouldn't say they're so much in danger of losing the series as of blowing it, if that makes sense. They remain the better, more talented team, but they don't always play with consistency or intelligence. Meanwhile, the Hornets aren't going away without a fight, so margins for error decrease. Particularly if Kobe's ankle limits him.
Ramona Shelburne: As long as Kobe Bryant is able to play in Game 5, I think the Lakers are fine. This series is reminding me of the Houston series from 2009: frustrating, annoying and ultimately harmless. The Hornets are a pesky, proud team with a superstar playing at the top of his game. The Lakers should have been able to beat them in five games. Instead they've let an inferior opponent hang around, gain confidence and push them into a dangerous place. But in the end, I still think the Lakers prevail.
John Ireland: I don't think the Lakers are in trouble, unless Kobe's ankle is more serious than we know. This series reminds me of Houston in '09, and OKC last year. For whatever reason, this edition of the Lakers needs to be put in a corner before they compete at the highest level. Since the Dallas/Portland series is also 2-2, their next opponent doesn't figure to have any more rest than they will.
2. Have the Hornets exposed weaknesses in the Lakers' attack?
McMenamin: Not necessarily exposed weaknesses, but challenged strengths. It is assumed that the Lakers' size and length are their two biggest advantages, so some teams won't even bother testing them inside. The Hornets haven't assumed anything and what they may lack in height they've more than made up for in aggression.
Markazi: Everyone already knew the Lakers struggle to defend elite point guards, and they don't come any more elite than Chris Paul, who dropped a triple-double on the Lakers despite playing with an injured thumb, a black eye and bruised ribs. Not only is Paul punishing the Lakers, but the aggressive play of the Hornets' frontcourt players is getting under the skin of Pau Gasol as well.
B. Kamenetzky: The weaknesses -- relatively poor outside shooting, a tendency to get stagnant in their movements, for example -- have always been there, but the Hornets are playing on them well. Still, the Lakers haven't stayed disciplined with the type of attack able to overwhelm New Orleans, nor hit enough jumpers to keep the Hornets honest. Defensively, they've held up well enough to win three games in this series, despite problems versus the pick-and-roll.
A. Kamenetzky: Not really. We knew before the series began the Lakers don't always play to their strengths, milk mismatches until bone-dry, or shoot well from outside. These four games are just a reminder. By and large, I think the plan of attack is fine, but the patience and execution sometimes leave much to be desired. (Having said that, I haven't liked all of Phil Jackson's decisions, the most recent sitting Ron Artest so long in the fourth quarter of Game 4.)
Shelburne: The Hornets haven't exposed any weaknesses in the Lakers we didn't already know existed. This team has had a problem with dribble penetration forever. Each year a new round of quick point guards has their way with the Lakers. The difference in this series is that Chris Paul is probably the best point guard the Lakers have had to contend with in years.
Ireland: The Hornets have exposed the same thing that Boston exposed in '08, Houston in '09, OKC last year -- they have trouble with quick point guards. Always have, going back to Allen Iverson and Tony Parker in the early part of Phil Jackson's tenure. The high pick-and-roll and dribble penetration are the "book" on how to play the Lakers, and teams will continue to do that until they stop it. In Game 4, Chris Paul executed the book perfectly.
3. After what you've seen over four games, do you believe Pau Gasol can stabilize his offense and have a positive impact in this series?
McMenamin: I'm not going to write off a four time All-Star after four games. What I'd like to see him do more of to get going -- and he did it in Game 4 -- is to get to the free throw line more often. He had just 10 free throw attempts total in Games 1-3 and seven attempts in Game 4. Gasol is a very good free throw shooter (he shot better than 80 percent during the regular season), so just seeing the ball go through the hoop will help him.
Markazi: He will have to if the Lakers are going to win the series. It seems after scoring just eight points in back-to-back games to start the series, Gasol is at least close to himself again. He scored 16 points in Game 4 and 17 points in Game 3. The key for Gasol is to stay aggressive on offense, muscle his way into the paint and not be afraid of some contact. Gasol simply can't settle for outside shots. He needs to attack the basket, even if it means getting hacked by a couple of players.
B. Kamenetzky: Yes, but Gasol needs to get more assertive, beating his man down the floor to establish better post position. From there, he can be aggressive both while looking for his own shot and creating for others. At the same time, the Lakers need to provide a consistent flow of touches to keep him involved, not only boosting Gasol's performance but hopefully the offense, generally.
A. Kamenetzky: I have my doubts. This has been Pau's most inconsistent season as a Laker, and there's no pattern behind these funks. Mentally, he just doesn't seem as sharp, as indicated by that bobbled pass late in the fourth quarter. Yes, the Lakers need to involve him more, but he hasn't been aggressive enough in any event, and the issues extend beyond just his points. He's not rebounding the ball, and his defense has been spotty.
Shelburne: He'd better. I've been one of Gasol's biggest defenders over the years. When he's played poorly in the past, I've always attributed it more to his teammates' failure to get him the ball with enough frequency and in good positions. But I'm at a real loss to explain what's been wrong with him in this series. He looks timid and out of sorts, almost like his confidence has been shaken by something. I think Pau needs to spend Game 5 focusing on his defense and rebounding, letting the offense come to him rather than trying so hard to make his mark.
Ireland: Gasol is playing with an upper respiratory infection and I'm convinced it's zapped his energy. He played better in Games 3 and 4, but he's not himself. Having said that, I think he shows up in the rest of the series. The Lakers have too big a size advantage for him not to be a factor.
4. Do the Lakers' ages/injuries put them at a disadvantage if this series goes seven games?
McMenamin: Yes. There was the Andrew Bynum knee scare in Game 3 and then the Kobe ankle scare in Game 4. If the series goes the distance, who knows what other ailments the Lakers will be dealing with when they limp into the second round?
Markazi: Well, if Bryant or Bynum or any other player who might get hurt in this series is unable to play or unable to play effectively it certainly puts the Lakers at a disadvantage. This goes to the larger point of closing out games and series as quickly as possible to avoid injuries and fatigue. Even if the Lakers get by the Hornets in six or seven games, their chances of winning a title takes a serious hit if a key player is hurt in these extra games.
B. Kamenetzky: Injuries, perhaps. Age, no. The Lakers don't have an "old" problem, but one of execution. People will look at their age and the mileage on guys assigned to guard Chris Paul and say the years have finally caught up, but it's far too simplistic a view. Did they age that much between Games 3 and 4? If Kobe or Matt Barnes are limited going forward it will hurt, but that would be true if everyone else were five years younger.
A. Kamenetzky: Again, it depends on the severity of Kobe's ankle, but generally speaking, I don't think so. The playoffs are always a grind, and there's no ducking that reality. The reasonable consensus among "pundits" was the Lakers winning this series in 5 games. If two additional games push them over the edge, I don't think there was enough in the tank to begin with.
Shelburne: There is no way the Lakers lose a Game 7 at Staples Center. Game 5 will decide the series. If Kobe Bryant can't go, or Chris Paul continues to play like a stockier version of Isiah Thomas, the Lakers are vulnerable. But there's no way the proud two-time defending champs lose Phil Jackson's last season on their home court in a Game 7.
Ireland: I think the Lakers' age figures into the entire playoff run. This team reminds me of the '88 Lakers, who needed to go seven games in the last three playoff series before winning the title. Kareem was older, and injuries played a bigger role. If they win it this year, it will be the hardest road of the Phil/Kobe/Fish era.
5. Can the Lakers stop Chris Paul?
McMenamin: No, they can't. But they can try to limit him. Make him shoot and get his teammates out of the game or make him pass figuring that his less-talented Hornets running mates are bound to miss more shots than he would.
Markazi: The simple answer is no. They can at least hope to slow him down by trapping him and throwing a combination of defenders his way, such as Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest and Derek Fisher, and changing the looks they give him. No matter what, however, no team in the league is going to be able to effectively stop Paul when he gets in a groove and plays his game like he did Sunday night.
B. Kamenetzky: With team defense. It takes a solid, coordinated effort with a limited amount of holes. The bigs need to play stronger, and L.A. can't have so much switching. Paul won't be shut down, but the Lakers don't need to erase him to win. Despite Sunday's trip-dub for CP3, had the Lakers done a better job offensively, they could have won, anyway.
A. Kamenetzky: Normally, I'd say making Kobe CP3's primary defender, but the ankle could nix that. (On a related note, I think going away from that Game 2 strategy was a major mistake.) If Kobe's not healthy enough, I'd say approaches range from giving Steve Blake more time on Paul, avoid switching bigs onto Paul by any means necessary, and better awareness to take away Paul's options. If Paul beats you as a scorer, so be it. But he can't score and pick you apart as a play-maker.
Shelburne: No player, or team, can stop Chris Paul right now. Short of mugging him every time he catches the ball, the only thing the Lakers can do is play great team defense, funneling Paul where they want him to go, rather than where he wants to go, and forcing the rest of the Hornets to beat them. The sooner the Lakers turn this into a 1-on-5 series, the sooner they beat the Hornets and move on to more pressing matters.
Ireland: They have to trap Chris Paul when he catches the ball. They did it a few times in Game 4, but not often enough. They also need to "switch up" their coverages, like football teams do to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. If you show him the same defense too many times in a row, he's too good and too smart not to make you pay.