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Lakers-Hornets Preview: It's "Dacos" Time

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Tonight, our old friend DJ Mbenga returns to Los Angeles for the first time with his new team, the New Orleans Hornets. We all remember him as a deep bench player who got minutes due to multiple injuries or foul trouble, but the bulk of them came during "Taco Unit" time. That's when the Lakers were holding a huge lead, icing the starters' knees and letting the bench play most of the 4th quarter. The only outcome in question was whether the crowd in Staples Center would receive free tacos for the Lakers holding their opponents under 100 points while winning. DJ Mbenga might have well been the mascot.

I'm starting to think the tacos follow him wherever he goes. There's this clip below from his Dallas days, and I'm not sure I've heard anything about tacos during any of the home games this season. I think he took them with him. The Lakers have had eight such games in which they've earned free tacos for fans, and I haven't heard a thing. I'm convinced Mbenga is personally responsible for free Mexican delights. Looking at the Hornets' season stats, I'm almost sure of it.


Like the Lakers' recent play, the Hornets have been a bit inconsistent. They started the season 11-1, and have leveled off at a 21-15 record. Not bad, but considering their great start, not too much to get excited about either. Not even the folks at At the Hive are sure what to make of their team:

All in all, the Hornets, obviously, haven't played well since that start, going 10-13 since. But even in that 10-13 span, we've seen signs of the team returning to form followed by efforts that have you wondering if the Hornets could even make the playoffs. Is it just a matter of matchups? Is it the lack of talent on the team?

One of the main problems is Mbenga's jedi mind trick of forcing scores under 100 points in order to donate crunchy tortilla sandwiches to the masses. It's not supposed to plague his own team, but it does. The Hornets are the 4th worst scoring team in the NBA on a per-game basis, with an average of 93.8 points per night. Part of the reason why is they play at an awfully slow pace -  the 3rd slowest pace in the NBA with 89.7 possessions per 48 minutes. They've only scored over 100 nine times so far this season. When they jumped out to that great 11-1 start, they scored over 100 five times. In 23 games since then, they struggled to reach triple digits, and the losses have piled up.

Hornets 24/7 thinks the Hornets should try to push the pace:

When teams have had success against the Lakers this year, they have been able to get out and run against them, outscoring them significantly in fast break points. Memphis put this formula on display in LA just five nights ago as they outscored the Lakers 28-5 in fast break points on their way to a 104-85 victory. Since that game, LA has won their last two games by controlling the boards and by making teams play at their pace.

For the Hornets to win tonight, they might have to be a little uncharacteristic and push the tempo. The Hornets have already tried to play the half court game against LA and they were outclassed and outexecuted. LA's size on both ends of the court just give the Hornets problems that they have no answers for. I said it in the podcast, and I will say it again, Lamar Odom would be the longest player on this team and he is LA's 3rd big. That is scary. Standing toe to toe with the Giant is not the way to beat him- you've gotta run him around and force him to fight outside of his comfort zone.

With a point guard as special as Chris Paul, it's certainly an option to consider, but CP3 has never seemed like the type of guard who likes to get out and run a lot. Byron Scott got plenty of blame for a bland Hornets offense (I was one of those blaming him), but not much has changed since he left. Considering the matchup problems the Lakers give the Hornets at pretty much every position except PG, I'm not sure running is even possible. In order to do that, they'd have to force Lakers misses, rebound the ball, then get out and run. That's relying on David West, Emeka Okafor and Marco Belinelli to force Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Kobe Bryant into those misses. That's tough to ask. West and Okafor aren't those types of players. Trevor Ariza is, and that might be the only way he can get going. He's been pretty awful for the Hornets (did he fire that agent yet?).

To the Hornets' credit, their pace seems to be a defensive strategy as well. They are a pretty good defensive team. They allow the 3rd fewest points in the league on a per-game basis at 92.1 points per night, give up 44.4% from the field (9th) and 33.6% on opponents' three pointers. They're an average rebounding team as far as total rebounds, ranked 5th, but more importantly than total rebounds, they rank 2nd in the NBA in defensive rebound rate pulling down 77.0% of opponents misses.

But matchups rule the day in the NBA. Los Angeles can score and rebound over them, while they can't return the favor on a consistent enough basis. The Lakers were able to soundly defeat the Hornets on December 29th by taking advantage of positive matchups on both ends. Our frontcourt gives them all sorts of issues, and our bench is superior to theirs. No, wait, their bench is awful. Lamar Odom absolutely roasted them, but he's now nursing a sore elbow. Did I mention they guard Kobe with Marco Belinelli? Kobe has been pretty good getting to the basket lately, and with the trouble that their frontcourt should have with the Laker bigs, easy buckets for all should be plenty. As good as Chris Paul is, there is only so much he can do. He alone can't account for the gluttony of riches the Laker enjoy against New Orleans. 

Of course, I have to remind you all that the Lakers have a bad tendency of not taking full advantage of things that worked in second meetings with teams they've previously beaten. Five of the Lakers' losses have come to teams they've defeated the first time around. Unless the Lakers' regular season schizophrenia shows more than New Orleans' does, I'm hoping to see DJ Mbenga crown Derrick Caracter or Joe Smith in the battle for the new "Taco Unit" leader.

Hornets

Lakers

RECORD..................................

21-15 (12th)

25-11 (5th)

NET POINTS PER GAME......

+1.7 (10th)

+6.1 (4th)

PACE.......................................

89.7 (28th)

92.8 (15th)

OFFENSIVE RATING..............

104.3 (23rd)

111.3 (3rd)

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

13.6% (17th)

13.0% (7th)

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

0.31 (12th)

0.29 (20th)

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

74.9% (19th)

78.0% (6th)

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

0.20 (21st)

0.23 (12th)

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

35.0% (19th)

36.5% (16th)

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

48.9% (17th)

50.6% (11th)

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

53.2% (18th)

55.1% (11th)

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

24.8% (21st)

29.6% (5th)

DEFENSIVE RATING.............

102.4 (6th)

104.8 (11th)

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

14.2% (11th)

13.0% (22nd)

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

0.28 (5th)

0.25 (2nd)

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

0.25 (27th)

0.24 (23rd)

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

33.6% (3rd)

34.2% (6th)

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

48.6% (11th)

48.0% (8th)

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

52.5% (9th)

51.7% (5th)

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

77.0% (2nd)

72.4% (23rd)

Numbers in parentheses indicate league rank. All numbers courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData.