We've seen this before. The movie unspooling on screen is just like one we watched last year, and the year before that. These waters are very, very charted.
The last few seasons, the Lakers haven't been all that great about holding serve in the first two games of a playoff series. Three times (or four, if you count the current series with the New Orleans Hornets) they've fumbled away the home-court edge by honking Games One or Two at Staples Center. But on each previous occasion, they've marshaled their scattered forces, rolled into an enemy gym and recaptured the high ground with a victory in Game Three.
Remember the 2009 conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets? Ahh, who could forget. The Rox got a road split in Los Angeles but lost Game Three at home (Yao Ming's last game of significance) when Kobe Bryant dropped 33 points on them. Next round, the Denver Nuggets stole Game Two at Staples but spit HCA right back up two nights later. Kobe's point total in that one? 41. And of course, last June the Celtics pulled a Game Two upset in L.A., only to suffer the cruel wrath of Derek Fisher in Game Three back in Boston. The leading scorer that night? You guessed it:
Luke Walton Kobe Bryant, 29 points.
These Lakers know how to dig themselves a hole, but they also know how to climb right back out of it and kick their opponents in, 300-style. Playing in New Orleans Arena tonight, before a crowd drunk on the can-do spirit of the plucky Hornets and also alcohol, won't perturb the champs. It's been a long time since they've really needed a road playoff win and not come up with it. And typically it's Kobe who senses the import of Game Three and orders the preemptive strike. (Pardon the overuse of military metaphorage.)
Doesn't it just feel like tonight will see Kobe order up some high-volume shooting? He's coming off a game in which his efforts were focused mostly at the defensive end, spearheading the Lakers' D against Chris Paul, and in which he spent the first half trying to conduct the ball to open teammates. That's not to excuse his poor shooting. But considering he took the same number of shots as about five other Lakers, it's clear that taking over the game offensively was not high on his agenda. I expect that to change this evening.
Which could be either good or bad, as we're well aware. Berserker Kobe can devastate opponents and suck the life from a hostile crowd, but it can just as readily throw the Laker offense into reverse. That's life with the Mamba. But I do suspect he'll come out firing tonight, in part to communicate a message to his teammates - that it's time to seize control of this series and put the Hornets in their place - and in part to take pressure off of Pau Gasol.
Pau's off to a pretty disastrous start this postseason. It's been jarring to see a player with his palette of offensive skills look so unsure of himself with the ball in his hands. It's as if Mark Rothko were terrified by the canvas. Who knows what's going on between Pau's ears, but from the outside it seems like self-doubt is metastasizing in his brain's creativity centers. Which is why one possible solution - getting him more touches early in the game - strikes me as counterproductive. Pau's going to be fine, but for now he's probably better off without feeling as if the fate of the Laker offense rests in his hands. Let him take a step back and play a bit less self-consciously. A garbage basket here, a finish in transition there, maybe a few free throws, and the game will start to look easy to him again.
In the meantime, there's a very hungry monster in the middle demanding to be fed. Andrew Bynum wrecked the Hornets' shit in Game Two and looks like he could be reactivating rampage mode. Emeka Okafor has been unable to guard him without fouling every three seconds. Aaron Gray's played surprisingly well but has a sprained ankle and is still, you know, Aaron Gray. In other words, Monty Williams doesn't have great options in this matchup. Working the ball inside to Drew and letting him dole out punishment is the Lakers' best chance to end this series in five games.
(A stat I uncovered: through the first two games of this series, Drew has a defensive rebounding rate of 39 percent. Mmmm, sexy. It means when he's on the floor, two out of every five shots the Hornets miss end up in his hands. He sees the ball in the air and he's all like NOM NOM NOM.)
This will sound strange, but I wouldn't mind seeing Ron Artest get a heavier offensive workload tonight. Without attracting much notice and despite a disappointing lack of bicep flexing, he's having an excellent series, scoring 16 points per 36 minutes on 62 percent true shooting. The Hornets have assigned Trevor Ariza to guard Kobe, which has left either Marco Belinelli or Willie Green on Ron-Ron duty. Artest can beat those guys up, and has been beating them up. Let's get him down in the post more often and see what kind of music he can play.
What of when the Hornets have the ball? Yeah yeah, I know... Chris Paul Chris Paul Chris Paul. I'm more curious to see what his supporting cast will do. CP3 is going to be awesome. That's pretty well established at this point. And Carl Landry will do Carl Landryish things en route to a point total in the upper teens. But what'll determine whether the Hornets can stand and trade with the champs is whether Belinelli, Green, Ariza and Jarrett Jack hold up their end of the bargain. They were excellent in Game One and basically the opposite of that in Game Two. The default assumption is that role players will look much better at home than on the road, but you know, it's not like these are amazing talents. If they could be counted on to come up big when the Hornets needed it, they wouldn't be the seventh seed.
I do regard tonight's game as a must-win for the Hornets. The Lakers gave them hope by stumbling around idiotically in Game One. That's unlikely to happen again at Staples, so the Hornets' path to victory in this series more or less requires them to win out on their home floor. A loss tonight will remind them why no one gave them a shot to begin with. Their zest for the fight will start to wobble. But with a win they guarantee, at worst, a sixth game back in New Orleans. NOLA's a dope city and all, rich in musical and culinary tradition, but I'd prefer the Lakers avoid a return visit until sometime next season.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.