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Los Angeles Lakers 88, New Orleans Hornets 93: Play now or pay later

One of these guys logged heavy minutes in tonight's game ... the wrong one.
One of these guys logged heavy minutes in tonight's game ... the wrong one.

The New Orleans Hornets evened up their first round series with the Los Angeles Lakers behind another mesmerizing Chris Paul performance, leading his team to victory 93-88.  No matter the shade of glasses you watch the game with, that should be the story.  CP3 had a massive triple double, scoring 27 points, dishing out 15 assists, and pulling down 13 rebounds.  He was the best player on the court.  He was the second best player on the court, too.  Why do I say this?  Because you can add up the box scores of any two players on either team, and fail to reach Paul's contributions to this game.  Go ahead and give it a try ... Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol?  33 points, but just 10 rebounds and 12 assists.  Kobe and Bynum? 28 points, and 15 boards, but only 8 assists.  Andrew and Pau?  27 points, 13 boards and 4 assists.  Something about that last line seems familiar ... oh, that's right, it looks just like Paul's.  The Lakers starting center and power forward, likely the best combo of center and power forward on any team in the league, combined for the same number of points AND REBOUNDS as a six foot tall point guard in a playoff game.

Kudos to Paul, and to Trevor Ariza, who carried the Hornets in the 1st half before fading in the 2nd, and to Jarrett Jack for hitting his only field goal with 9 seconds left to go in the game to put NO up 4, and to the entire team of scrappy, hard-working players for eeking out the win.  But this is a blog devoted to the Los Angeles Lakers, and that means we must review the contest in terms of what went wrong for the defending champs.  It's a sadly predictable narrative.

The Lakers played this game like it was expendable.  They accomplished their mission in Game 3, taking back home-court advantage in a dominating 100-86 win.  We made a big deal, both before and after that game, of how the Lakers have gone into a road game 3 of a tied series four times over the past two years, and every time they end game 3 victorious.  How foolish of us not to continue the analysis, because every single one of those game 3 victories have been followed by a game 4 loss.  The expendable nature of this game could be seen in many facets of the team's performance.  The team's overall rebounding, as previously noted in how CP3 matched the rebounding performance of our starting front court, and Kobe's defense of Trevor Ariza, repeatedly allowing Trevor to drive by with ease in the first half, are both examples of a lack of intensity from a team that wanted to win this game, but wasn't ready to devote the necessary energy to do so.  Blame them if you want.  Blame Kobe, who combined terrible 1st half defense with bad shooting throughout.  Blame Pau, who continues his epic unwillingness to hit the glass (averaging 6.25 boards per game in the series).  Blame Lamar Odom, who was every bit the non-presence in this game that he was game-changer in game 3.  But before you blame any of them, cast the accusing eye at the man who decided this game was expendable in the first place.  He'd be the one wearing a fancy championship ring and sitting in a ridiculously high chair.

Phil Jackson lost this game, as he's lost many a game before, because when it comes down to it, he just doesn't care that much about individual results.  The pivotal moment of tonight's contest came in the early 4th quarter, as the Hornets built up a nine point lead after the teams were tied at 72 with just after the start of the fourth.  Over a 5:30 stretch, the Hornets outscored the Lakers 12 to 3 ... Three points in five+ minutes, that's exactly how you lose a close game.  And running a lineup filled with your (ineffective) bench players against a lineup chock full of the other guy's starters is exactly how such a deficit gets created.  Over the five minute stretch in which this game was decided, the Lakers had a lineup of Steve Blake, Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, and either Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum.  The presence of LO with either big man would normally be enough to ensure the Lakers had enough talent on the court, but LO was terrible tonight, and without his aggressiveness, that unit was Grade A suck.  Who did they play against?  Chris Paul and Carl Landry (the Hornets two best players) with Jarrett Jack, Willie Green, and equal parts Trevor Ariza and Aaron Gray.  On paper, maybe that doesn't seem so imbalanced, which is exactly why a tied series after four games is so ridiculous.  But in practice, it's no surprise that lineup torched the Lakers crappy bench unit and made the game too much of an uphill battle for the Lakers to recover.

And why were the Hornets two best players facing the Lakers 2nd unit?  Because Monty Williams was willing to do what Phil Jackson was not, playing his best players extended minutes.  You know, because this is the fucking playoffs.  Where rotations get shorter, where you give your stars a bit more run.  Instead, Phil Jackson is maintaining minutes for a bench unit that has rewarded him with justification of those minutes once in four games.  He's barely increased the burn for his starters at all.  Kobe's minutes are increased (from 34 to 37).  Ron Artest and Derek Fisher are both seeing the court a bit more, too (both playing 33 mpg, up from 29 and 28 respectively).  Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom's minutes have both gone down, and that's not just because Andrew is demanding more playing time.  The big man trio was responsible for 97 minutes/game on the regular season, and that number has decreased to 94/game in this series.

It may be unfair to compare the Hornets and Lakers in this regard.  After all, NO is without David West, their leading scorer and 2nd best player, and besides, the team isn't all that good to begin with.  But, in the game the Lakers just lost by 5, in no small part because of a 12-3 run which took place while the Lakers bench unit was facing off against a predominantly starting unit for the Hornets, the Lakers bench played 64 minutes to the Hornets bench's 49 overall.  Oh, and they matched the Lakers bench in shorter minutes, too (18 points, 6 boards, 3 assists, 0 turnovers compared to 18, 8, 3, and 3 for L.A.'s bench). 

More importantly, the Hornets are riding their horses while the Lakers horses are still out to pasture.  Chris Paul played 44 minutes tonight, including the entire 2nd half.  Trevor Ariza played 42 minutes, Carl Landry 39.  No Laker played more than 37.  The series portrait is the same, with Paul and Ariza both over 40 minutes/game, and nobody on the Lakers even close.  You can bet that if Emeka Okafor could stay out of foul trouble at all, he too would be around the 40 minute mark.

In the end, it's tough to criticize Phil Jackson for his strategies.  They have a funny way of working out successfully just about every single time.  Some time later this postseason, if indeed there is a later this postseason, the bench might lead the Lakers to victory unexpectedly, and the reason why they will be capable of doing so might have everything to do with their getting extended minutes here in round one.  It is the Phil Jackson way, and his way is paved with so, so much gold.  That said, in looking to explain how a team as talented as the Lakers is stuck in yet another dogfight with yet another team that is very much an inferior opponent, there is only one man who can truly be held responsible.

It remains a dangerous game that Phil Jackson is playing.  If the Lakers had been focused from the beginning of this series, tonight might very well have seen their first round end.  If Phil had been willing to ride the many stars in his possession, the Lakers might well have taken a commanding 3-1 lead.  Now, the Lakers have at least two more contests before this series can be put to bed, with the added danger that this particular series, and the Lakers entire playoff campaign, might have just turned on an ankle.

In Phil we trust, because he has long proven to be right about almost everything.  This time, we must trust again that he is right in deciding that the risk of additional basketball is worth his willingness to rely on a woeful bench.  After all, because of Phil Jackson, the Lakers still have plenty of basketball left to be played.  Hey, at least his guys will be well-rested, right?











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UPDATE: Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times is reporting that Derrick Caracter was arrested for assault early Sunday morning after an alleged altercation near the team hotel.

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