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LAL - NOH Round One, Game Four Preview: Featuring A Return To Normalcy, For Now

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Prior to this series, many were predicting, with solid reason, a sweep in this series; primarily rooted in the fact that the Hornets simply don't have the size or firepower to run with the Lakers. These predictions were quickly thrown awry by an unfocused Laker team embarrassing themselves on their own home court versus a motivated and peppy Hornets team led by a marvelous performance by Point Guard Chris Paul. Although the loss wasn't expected by many, neither did it truly surprise most ardent Laker fans - the Lakers had been playing mediocre ball for the last few weeks before the start of the Playoffs, and with New Orleans being their weakest playoff opponent in years on paper, it wasn't surprising the Lakers didn't get geared up for the game.

After the game, Lamar Odom contended that the loss was a good thing, as it was a humbling experience. An odd statement, to be sure - of all the games this season, all the embarrassments, this was hardly the most humiliating; and it didn't seem the Lakers all necessarily mirrored Odom's sentiment, winning Game Two in a ho-hum affair featuring better execution than the series opener, but nothing displaying true resolve on the Lakers' part.

Then the series moved to Game Three; which the Lakers won in solid fashion, but hardly the blowout they're capable of. Now, with the Lakers leading 2-1, and winning the last two games without 100% effort, the series is starting to fit the prescribed storyline better. The Lakers are still working out a lot of kinks, yet to have had a truly dominant all-round team performance; with either their bench or members of their core disappointing in each game. The Hornets are putting up a fight to the best of their ability, but can't match up with the Lakers, with or without their leading scorer David West. Hardly the manner of exciting series going on elsewhere in the Playoffs.

However, looking at the Lakers' playoff runs in their last two Championship seasons, something interesting emerges: only once have the Lakers lost Game One at home. In that series too the Lakers fought back to win the next two games; but then it got interesting. Their opponent, missing their leading scorer and with nothing to lose, fought back to tie the series in Game Four with a convincing win. The Lakers, startled by this, came back focused and routed their opponent in Game Five, blowing them out by an astonishing 40 points, in a show of dominance rarely seen from this Laker squad. The series seemed in the Lakers' hands, with little hope for their opponent of recuperating from such a loss. Only, they did, beating the Lakers by fifteen points in Game Six. The Lakers then went on to win Game Seven due to suffocating defense holding their opponents to 70 points, blowing them out despite an atrocious night from Kobe Bryant and mediocre bench performance.

The opponents in that series were the Houston Rockets, who lost Yao Ming in Game Three, leaving them without a true Center, making their situation truly hopeless as they were already missing their leading scorer in Tracy McGrady. On paper, the Rockets had no chance of beating the Lakers without Yao, who was their primary weapon and was experiencing success against the Lakers. Their situation was probably more dire than that of the Hornets, who haven't had both their leading scorers suffer injuries, and still have a superstar in Chris Paul; yet they fought on to a Game Seven; in perhaps the most bipolar series this incarnation of the Lakers have played.

Before I even ask if we could see something like this again, here, I wonder whether a series like that would be a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, the Lakers' potential second-round opponent, whether it be Portland or Dallas, will need to play at least six games in their series, which is quite likely to go to seven; which would give the Lakers the upper hand in having had a significantly greater amount of time to rest and prepare in between series if they win in five. On the other hand, a series like that Houston series could truly wake the Lakers up. Lamar Odom said that for the Lakers, getting their asses kicked in Game One was a humbling experience; but far more humbling would be getting taken to seven games by a team that really shouldn't even be in the Playoffs.

An experience like that could serve to wake the Lakers up - the emphasis is on 'could' here, as it didn't really work out that way in 2009, where the Lakers initially struggled against the Nuggets, having the series tied at 2-2 before closing out by winning two straight in solid fashion. Although, in retrospect, that could be attributed more to the Nuggets being a tough matchup who weren't willing to give an inch - perhaps like a potential second-round matchup with the Blazers this year.

There is evidence pointing towards the aspect of rest being overrated for the Lakers, namely their sterling record in the second game of back to backs, and it's quite established that perhaps the most dangerous opponent for the Lakers, at least in the West, is themselves. If the Hornets can challenge the Lakers and shake them out of the last dregs of their malaise, like the Thunder have been credited with doing last season, it could help the Lakers win a Championship. It's unclear as to whether or not the Hornets have it in them to give that much more fight, and it would require gargantuan performances from Chris Paul, but it is in the realm of possibility. In the end, contested series are good for basketball, nobody wants a series to get boring.

Game Four is always a pivotal game in a series, as its outcome essentially defines how a series will play out - if the trailing team wins and ties the series, it generally signals a tough, exciting series going to six or seven games; whilst if the leading team wins it and takes a commanding 3-1 lead, there's not much hope left for the team that's behind. In this series, it's no different - if the Lakers win in Game Four, the comparisons to the Rockets series and the possibility of a seven-game series becomes extremely minor (the Lakers aren't the Mavericks, after all). By no means am I saying I want the Lakers to play like crap in this game merely for the sake of extending the series; just that it would be nice for New Orleans to show some more fight.

As for matchups and adjustments; with the Lakers having won the last two games, there's not much for them to adjust. There are still kinks in their offense to be sorted, but no structural adjustment. Certainly, there's currently no need for them to change anything they're doing in order to better counteract the Hornets. Now, it's Hornets coach Monty William's job to make the adjustments, and the Lakers' job to counteract them. Let's see how well they do that tonight.

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