Lakers-Hornets Preview: The Natives Are Westless

LOS ANGELES CA - JANUARY 7: Jarrett Jack #2 of the New Orleans Hornets gets a hand on the ball as he defends against Lamar Odom #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on January 7 2011 in Los Angeles California. The Lakers won 101-97. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and or using this photograph User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

For Hornets fans, the 2010-11 NBA season has been rather too eventful. It began amid rumors that the best player in franchise history had demanded a trade despite two years left on his contract. No sooner did that drama get resolved than fans had to worry about hitting attendance benchmarks at New Orleans Arena to keep the team locked into its lease and prevent its possible relocation. Meanwhile, a sale of the team collapsed, forcing the league itself to step in and assume ownership, a move that's given birth to chatter that the Hornets might be contracted. Then last week, having apparently decided that its torment of Hornets fans hadn't quite gone far enough, Fate backhanded them yet again by ripping apart the ACL of David West, who's now out for the season.

It's kind of amazing that in spite of all this, the Hornets enter the final weeks of the season in position to reach the playoffs. They sit, however precariously, at the seventh spot in the Western Conference with nine games left to play. On Friday night, in their first game without West, they held on to beat the Suns in Phoenix. With four games remaining against the Grizzlies, Rockets and Suns - the teams in competition with the Hornets for the conference's last two playoff spots - the Hornets are about to begin what's effectively a little play-in tournament. They're in decent shape to survive it, if for no other reason than they're starting with the best record of the four teams, but the loss of West is a nasty blow to their chances of upsetting someone in the first round. Without him, they look very much like a team that come playoff time will get pulverized in four or five games.

The Lakers could well be the ones doing the pulverizing. As occupant of second place in the West, the champs would be the Hornets' first-round opponents were current standings to hold. This would be an excellent outcome for the Lake Show and considerably less excellent for the Hornets, as the recent history of this matchup has been mucho one-sided. Forgive me for repeating these data points - for whatever reason, I've written a lot about the Hornets lately - but the data points are worth repeating: since Pau Gasol joined the Lakers, they've won nine of 12 games against New Orleans, including six of the last seven. Over three games between the teams this season, all Laker wins, the champs have scored 1.18 points per possession and allowed just 1.08. And that's with a healthy David West on the floor.

In his absence, Carl Landry has been summoned to the Hornets' starting lineup. Landry has his charms, but he's inferior to West in more ways than not. And of course, the move opens up a hole in the New Orleans second unit, which was nothing special to begin with. Aaron Gray, Jason Smith and David Andersen are now the frontcourt reserves. When you consider that the Lakers have three bigs - Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum - all of whom are better than any big man the Hornets can trot out there, the scale of the mismatch is thrown into relief.

Often when a key player is lost to injury, there's a short-term "rally ‘round the flag" effect among the survivors. Recall, for instance, how well the Lakers played last season when Kobe Bryant was out. That only takes you so far, though, and however desperately the Hornets are playing, and with however much esprit de corps, tonight's game should be a check-the-box Lakers victory. They have advantages in size, depth, talent and home court, and unless they totally hit the snooze button on this one, they shouldn't encounter any problems.

Here specifically is what I'd like to see:

1. Continued Reintegration of Bynum. Drew looked fine on Friday night in his return from suspension, but he wasn't a big part of the offense. He didn't get too many chances as the first option in a halfcourt set. To help restore him to his pre-Beasley groove, I'd like to see him go to work with his back to the hoop against Emeka Okafor. That'll keep him engaged and give him opportunities both to polish his post moves and to dust off his interior passing skills.

2. Pick and Roll Defense. A chronic Laker ailment, the P&R defense slipped into bad old habits in the triple-OT game against Phoenix. Fortunately (?) there's no better player against whom to hone one's technique than Chris Paul. Let's get those hedges and rotations sorted out, people.

3. A Bench Awakening. The Lakers' second unit hasn't been so tasty the last couple games. On Saturday Phil Jackson called them out. Per Broderick Turner of the LA Times:

Jackson is not happy that his reserves let a 16-point lead Friday against the Clippers slip and a 21-point lead Tuesday against the Phoenix Suns get away, even though the Lakers won both games. "They have to play defense a lot better and not turn the ball over," Jackson said. "So without trying to bring a huge focus to it, it's a problem right now."

Perhaps the shuttling of Odom in and out of the starting lineup has thrown rhythms off. Or perhaps not. Dude, I don't know. It's not like I've bugged the locker room.

4. No Mercy. It's pretty astonishing that the Lakers are so playing so well right now. Not that we didn't think them capable: it's just that, the way this team mailed it in down the stretch of the regular season last year, seeing them take every opponent seriously as the schedule winds down is just bizarre. I'm not totally convinced they won't succumb to boredom between now and the playoffs, but for the time being I'm loving their preparation and ruthless approach to each game, and I'd be delighted to see it continue. The Hornets are wounded prey at the moment, but this is no time for the champs to show pity.

I recommend keeping an eye on the Spurs-Grizzlies game Sunday afternoon, which will finish about an hour before the Lakers and Hornets tip off. Although catching the Spurs remains something of a fantasy, the Lakers are talking as if they're going to put as much pressure as they can on the league leaders. If the Spurs fall in Memphis, the Lakers will enter tonight's contest 4½ games back, and in that case I'd expect them to take the floor with sexiness and fire.

 

                  Hornets                

                   Lakers                 

 


League Rank


League Rank

Record...................................

42-31

11

52-20

3

Net Points Per Game..............

+1.8

11

+6.4

3

Pace.......................................

88.9

28

90.6

21

Offensive Rating.....................

106.2

20

111.7

2

Turnover Rate (Off.).............

12.9%

10

12.3%

2

FTA/FGA (Off.)....................

0.30

15

0.29

20

Free-Throw %......................

76.8

14

78.3

7

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.).............

0.19

22

0.22

16

3PT% (Off.).........................

35.8

15

35.7

16

Effective FG% (Off.)............

49.4

18

50.5

10

True Shooting% (Off.)...........

53.7

16

54.8

11

Off Rebounding Rate............

24.9%

20

29.8%

4

Defensive Rating.....................

104.2

6

104.7

7

Turnover Rate (Def.).............

14.4%

6

12.9%

20

FTA/FGA (Def.)...................

0.29

7

0.23

1

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.)............

0.25

29

0.24

23

3PT% (Def.)........................

35.4

10

33.8

3

Effective FG% (Def.)............

49.5

12

48.0

5

True Shooting% (Def.)..........

53.5

12

51.6

4

Def Rebounding Rate.........

76.3%

2

72.2%

23

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore. Numbers are courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData. Check out our terrific sister site At The Hive for more on tonight's game.

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