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Lakers 102, Hornets 84: No West For The Dreary

Sometimes, life's like a box of chocolates that contains only one kind of chocolate: you know precisely what you're going to get. Such is the case these days with games between the Lakers and Hornets. The teams assemble on a basketball court. The Lakers deploy their superior size, depth and talent to pound away inside. Kobe Bryant goes to work on whoever's guarding him. Hornet shooters honk a bunch of open looks. Lakers win comfortably. Cut. Print. That's a wrap.

Everything went according to script tonight at Staples Center, where the Lakers prevailed, 102 to 84, to tie a bow around a four-game season sweep of New Orleans. We can look forward to a four-game postseason sweep should these teams meet in the playoffs. Even before the recent injury to David West, the Hornets lacked the weaponry to contend with the champs. Without him, their cause is hopeless. The Lakers didn't waste much time monkeying around with them this evening and without great difficulty bagged their seventh straight win and 15th in 16 dates since the All-Star break. I hereby dub this winning streak... tasty.

Across the course of this season, the Hornets have actually been one of the league's better defensive sides. The Lakers, though, have had zero trouble scoring on them. Over the previous three games between the teams, the Lakers averaged 1.18 points per possession. Tonight they did themselves one better and rang up 1.20 points per trip. The offensive approach was balanced and methodical: get the big men their touches, wait for angles to open up, and if nothing else is available Kobe can take Trevor Ariza off the dribble. Done and done. Kobe scored 30 points on 28 shots (including free-throw possessions) to go with five assists and zero turnovers. Pau Gasol likewise had a sexy scoring night, putting up 23 points on 16 shots.

The Lakers' defensive strategy was a good one. They deliberately left Ariza, Marco Belinelli and Willie Green open on the perimeter, choosing instead to crowd the paint and gum up Chris Paul's driving lanes. It worked: the Hornets shot 3 for 17 on threes and scored less than a point per possession. West's replacement Carl Landry had a nice night, attacking with face-up moves en route to 29 points. Emeka Okafor and Aaron Gray took advantage of Laker boredom to collect a ton of offensive boards and more than a few second-chance points. But that was basically the extent of the Hornets' offense. Paul took only 11 shots, scoring 10 points. For most of the night, it was easy to forget he was in uniform.

This one would've been still more lopsided had it not been for Andrew Bynum's foul trouble. Drew logged only 22 minutes and had to shuttle in and out of the game at choppy intervals from the late second quarter onward. He picked up his fifth infraction early in the fourth quarter, but at that point Phil Jackson just left him in to play through it. And Drew did well with his limited court time. Playing over, around and through the smaller Okafor, Bynum finished with 13 points and five boards and avoided picking up his sixth whistle.

The only blemishes tonight were an awful shooting performance from Derek Fisher (1 for 8) and multi-faceted incompetence on the part of the bench. (By "bench," of course, I mean Steve Blake, Shannon Brown, Luke Walton and Matt Barnes. Presumptive Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom was fine.) In the second period and again in the fourth, the Hornets closed the lead somewhat while the reserve unit was on the floor. Especially on offense, these guys are really struggling right now. They're not working the ball inside quickly enough, electing instead to pass the ball around the perimeter or dribble aimlessly, and when the open shot is available, they're not converting. Blake, Barnes, Luke and Shannon shot 1 for 7 on three-pointers.

At the beginning of the fourth period, with both second units on the floor, the Hornets sliced the lead to six. Phil being Phil, he stoically refused to sub in the starters, forcing the reserves to sort shit out for themselves. And they did, by taking a deep breath and getting the rock inside to Bynum. In a five-possession stretch, Drew scored seven points, and the lead was back up to a comfortable 13 when the starters returned to the game with less than five minutes left. Classic Phil.

A word about Chris Paul: he's a magnificent player, and I dig the guy, but in a game like this, how does he justify taking only 11 shots? We knew beforehand that the Hornets would have a hell of a time trying to score. There's no David West. Landry and Okafor would have to work against significantly taller players. Up and down the depth chart are mismatches in favor of the Lakers, except at one position: point guard. If you're Chris Paul, isn't it imperative in these circumstances that you try to take over the game? Kicking out to Ariza, Belinelli and Willie Green was never going to get it done. For the Hornets to have even a minimal shot at stealing this one, Paul had to be gunning for 30-plus points. He had to look for his own shot early, often and aggressively. Instead, he shrank into the woodwork and made life easy on the Lake Show's defense.

Anyhoodle, the Lakers are on a serious roll. They now have three full days off before hosting the Mavs on Thursday night. The Spurs lost in Memphis this afternoon, so their lead over the champs is down to four games. Each team has nine left to play, including a head-to-head at Staples on April 12. The likelihood of catching the Spurs remains quite low, but if it can serve as a tangible goal to keep the Lakers sharp and focused, I'll do my part to keep hope alive.











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