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Lakers 100, Hornets 86: Big, Easy

This is more or less how we thought the series would look. Most of us who predicted the outcome of the Lakers' first-round matchup with the Hornets figured it to last no more than five games because the champs' cumulative advantages seemed overwhelming. Too much size and skill on the front line. Too much Kobe Bryant. Too many mediocre talents and non-talents surrounding Chris Paul. Too many things that need to go just right for the Hornets to stay in the ring. It all broke the Hornets' way in Game One, but since then, not so much. The Lakers steadied themselves with a just-OK performance in Game Two. Tonight they pulled it all together in their first complete performance of the postseason. Their 100 to 86 victory was the product of sharp work from all of their top six players and recaptured home-court advantage heading into Game Four on Sunday.

Anyone who's followed this team closely the past few years shouldn't be surprised. As discussed in our previewage, four times in the Pau Gasol era the Lakers have lost Game One or Two of a playoff series at home. Four times now, they've gone on the road and won Game Three. It's just how they do. And as in those past series-turning victories, tonight's was made possible by a lethal and dynamic Black Mamba.

Kobe didn't spend much time in this one guarding Chris Paul. That task was left to Derek Fisher, who handled it not too badly, considering. Kobe instead was all about attacking the Hornets' defense and daring them to keep up with his scoring barrage. He scored 10 in the first quarter as the Lakers established an early seven-point cushion. After halftime, he hit back-to-back threes to push the lead out to 13. He finished with a game-high 30 points on 23 shots (including free-throw possessions), the 80th 30-point playoff game of his career. I suspect he's got a couple more in him before these playoffs are over.

Kobe's excellence was but one dimension of an impressively varied Laker assault. Andrew Bynum picked up where he left off after a dominant Game Two and ripped the Hornets for 14 points in the first half. Early in the third quarter we had yet another Bynum injury scare, when he stepped on Carl Landry's foot and spent a few moments clutching his right knee brace. Mercifully, it was a false alarm. Though Drew didn't score in the second half, he did stay in the game and looked basically OK moving around.

The best news of all was the play of Gasol. Pau's been smacked around pretty good the past week, both on and off the court, but this evening he looked more like his old self. Although at halftime he had just four points and four boards, he was making some nifty passes and was starting to resemble a functional part of the Triangle offense. After the break he was excellent, pulling in six more rebounds and scoring 13 points on 10 shots, including a three early in the fourth quarter that took the wind out of the Hornets' last real charge. I actually think that three-pointer was not all that fluky. He's got good form and arc on that outside shot, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him start working it into his arsenal more frequently. In any case: welcome to the playoffs, Pau. We've missed you.

There really wasn't any stretch of the game when the Hornets stopped the Laker attack. The champs scored 1.22 points per possession on the night and no less than 1.09 in any one quarter. Ball movement was sound, especially on the interior. Guys weren't firing up stupid outside shots. There was a commitment to getting the rock inside (post, repost, cut) and doing work on the offensive glass. For the game the champs rebounded 34% of their own misses and scored 17 second-chance points. Eight of them directly followed Pau's offensive boards.

As for the Hornets... you know, they compete, but they're just so outgunned in this series. See if this sounds familiar: Chris Paul had good numbers (22 points, 8 assists), Carl Landry got his (23 points), and just about everyone else sucked. Marco Belinelli, Willie Green, Jarrett Jack and Quincy Pondexter spent the night making a convincing case for why CP3 should leave New Orleans at his earliest opportunity. They shot a combined 3 for 21.

After Pau hit his three and Steve Blake connected on another long ball the next possession, you could feel the spirit leave the building. Down the stretch the Hornets' offense was a baffling mess. Multiple trips went by when Paul didn't touch the rock. He took only one shot in the fourth quarter. And it's worth repeating: he was being guarded by Derek Fisher. Fish did what he could, and had some success forcing Paul into a few turnovers early on, but it's genuinely astonishing that CP3 would just fade out of a game like that, especially one that New Orleans really needed to win.

A few other gold stars to hand out:

  • Ron Artest continues to be a very steady contributor. This series is a little odd for him because he doesn't have anyone interesting to guard, but he's causing problems for New Orleans at the offensive end. Keep it up, Ron, and please stay off Bourbon Street this weekend.
  • Lamar Odom's defense on Landry was a disappointment, but his fourth-quarter scoring was key to putting the game out of reach.
  • I loved Matt Barnes's defense. Though he absolutely should not be shooting threes anymore, he was disruptive as hell when the Hornets had the ball. A promising sign: still no Luke Walton sightings in the playoffs!

The champs now get a day off, which I encourage them to spend not stumbling into trouble in the sordid alleys of New Orleans. With a victory in Game Four they can squelch for good the Hornets' upset hopes, assuming any remain after tonight.











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