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Might The Hornets Actually... Win?

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Is it possible to die from exasperation? If so, I might not make it through the first round, and I suspect plenty of you are good candidates to join me in a mass grave. I call top.

This was supposed to be an easy series. Before it began, I called New Orleans "the weakest playoff opponent the Lakers have faced in over 10 years," an assessment I stand by. Sure, the Hornets have impressed by refusing to internalize the consensus wisdom that they hadn't a shot against the Lakers. They've competed with verve and resourcefulness. But fundamentally there's no reason we shouldn't be spending this fine Monday debating whether we'd prefer to see the Mavericks or Trail Blazers in the second round, except that these are the Lakers we're talking about. And they never, ever learn.

Every season, they insist on putting us through this. Every year there's one overmatched playoff opponent they should quickly euthanize but instead, thanks to their default mode of not giving a damn until they absolutely must, allow to squirm and kick and drag them into a long series. Last season it was the Thunder. The year before that, the Rockets. Count me as taken aback that the Hornets have forced us into this tiresome dance yet again, but perhaps I'm the one at fault here. For giving the Lakers too much credit. For thinking they'd learned something from the past. No one, it appears, will ever go broke overestimating the champs' ability to make things harder than they need to be.

Even today, with the series tied at two games apiece, the mood in Lakerland isn't riven through with anxiety so much as teeth-grinding impatience. The perception, I gather (and it's one I share), is that an inevitability has been simply postponed. As C.A. noted last night, the Lakers have a track record of honking Game Four after they've scored a critical Game Three victory on the road, so the steaming pile they dropped last night really shouldn't have been such a surprise. And they've been terrific about bouncing back in Game Five: in the Gasol era, they're 5-1 in fifth games when the series is tied 2-2. The Lakers still have home-court advantage, and they still have the big edge in talent. Odds are by Saturday night, if not sooner, we'll be hashing out scouting reports for the champs' second-round opponent.

But here's the thing: every massive upset seems deeply improbable right up to the point when it actually happens. If you could see it coming, it wouldn't be a massive upset. So even though I think Laker fans are right to remain confident about this series, it's worth considering... what if we're wrong? What if there's something we're missing? What if the Lakers are Wile E. Coyote suspended in midair, not yet realizing that gravity's about to make their lives miserable?

My own view is that the concept of a Hornets upset has moved from the unthinkable into the merely improbable. The Lakers should get out of this round just fine, but it's become increasingly easy to imagine scenarios where they don't. There are four reasons in particular why a Hornets series victory is an idea we should start to take a little more seriously.

1.  Chris Paul is amazeballs again. CP3's splendid form is something almost all of us failed to anticipate. We thought he'd resemble the Chris Paul we saw in the regular season: talented and productive, sure, but not aggressive or potent enough to swing entire games in the Lakers' favor. It's clear now that the old CP3 is back. He's shifted into a new gear, and the Lakers have been able to contain him only sporadically. He seems to be getting a feel for when to find his own shot and when to set the table for teammates. It's not out of the question that he has a couple 35-15-7 stat lines left in him.

2.  Kobe is hurt. Kobe Bryant sprained his left ankle in Game Four and needed crutches to leave New Orleans Arena. There might be an MRI or X-rays on Monday morning. Of course Kobe will play, but who knows how wounded he'll look. His burst off the dribble might falter. He could lose lift on his jumpshot. Most crucially, a loss of lateral mobility could impair his ability to check Paul on D. Whenever the Lakers face a top-flight point guard, Kobe is always the last line of defense. If things get really grim, Phil Jackson can put out the fire by shifting Kobe up top and having him ride to the rescue. What if that's no longer an option?

3.  The Laker bigs aren't getting it together. This series should've belonged to Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. On paper the Hornets don't have an answer for any one of them, let alone all three. But twice now in four games, the Hornets' front line has embarrassed the Laker bigs by playing with more fire and hustle. Last night was a travesty. For nearly the entire game, Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor chased down every loose rebound they could get their hands on while the Laker big men looked on passively. Gasol, Odom and Drew need to wake the hell up and decide they've had enough of being slapped around.

4.  It's just a three-game series now. After Game One we all said, "OK, the Hornets were good, but they can't do it three more times." Well, now they just need to do it two more times. There's a reason the "small sample size" caveat is so often invoked. It's because weird shit can happen when you're talking about just a game or two. Sure, the Lakers are a much better team than the Hornets, and that'll come out in the long run. But as of last night the long run no longer exists. It's no longer about who's the superior team in the abstract. It's about who plays better in the next 48 minutes, and the 48 after that.

By failing to put the Hornets in the ground quickly, the Lakers have left themselves vulnerable to the possibility that an anvil will fall on their head. The anvil could take the form of Marco Belinelli making 6-for-8 threes next game. Or it could be Andrew Bynum forearming Chris Paul in the face and drawing a suspension. Or there could be an injury even worse than the one Kobe suffered yesterday.

Again, none of these things is likely. But I'm done thinking of them as impossible.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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