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Lakers 106, Hornets 90: Slamming Down The Hammer

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Every once in a while, the easy story is actually the correct story. It sounds overly pat, but trust me, it really happened like this: for most of the first half tonight, the Lakers struggled to get a handle on Game Five of their series against the New Orleans Hornets. They were a step slow, and if we're being honest, looked a little nervous. With just a few minutes to go before the break, they trailed by four. At that point Kobe Bryant, who needed crutches to leave New Orleans Arena on Sunday and who refused an MRI on his injured ankle, brought the basketball world to its feet with a majestic, swooping dunk over Emeka Okafor. His lightning strike defibrillated the Lakers and changed the energy of the game. Jolted to life by the Mamba, the champs became the aggressors. They turned the dial up on defense and took the battle into the paint, where they overwhelmed the Hornets and won going away, 106 to 90.

If I hadn't watched the game myself, I'd be instinctively skeptical of this narrative, as it gives off a whiff of strained mythologizing. But tonight the myth aligned with reality. Before the game started, we didn't know what to expect from Kobe. We've seen him produce great performances in spite of injuries, but we've also seen him drag himself helplessly around the court, doing more damage than good. Thank your deity of choice that we got the former tonight, because without it the Lakers could well be staring into the offseason abyss. Although the final score bespeaks a dominant performance by the Lakers, the dominance took time to develop.

This wasn't your typical Game Five spanking, like we saw last year against the Thunder and the year before that against the Rockets. The Hornets made sure of it by playing an almost perfect first quarter. With technically superb offensive execution, they shot 13 of 16 in the first period and built up a nine-point lead. Chris Paul had eight assists and Trevor Ariza scored 10 points on just four shot attempts. The champs, meanwhile, were missing easy looks at the rim and seemed a bit too anxious for their own good.

Credit the bench for steadying the ship. A lineup of Steve Blake, Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol began the second quarter by holding New Orleans scoreless on six straight trips. The Hornets were bound to cool off, but they did themselves no favors by getting sloppy with the rock. Jarrett Jack was a disaster running the offense. On his watch the Hornets' attack stalled out, which allowed the champs to get their wits about them and refocus. Then, after a few minutes of inconclusive skirmishing, this happened.


BRING IT ON HOME, KOBE BRYANT. For good measure, he tacked on six more points before halftime, which found the champs back on their feet and leading by three.

The second half was a gradual but definitive choking-out. The Lakers tightened everything up on D: better rotations, aggressive swipes at the ball and fine work on the defensive glass. Ariza's shot went flat. Despite frequently beating Gasol on face-up isolations, Carl Landry struggled to finish over Andrew Bynum. Paul and Marco Belinelli combined for 23 second-half points, but there were no other good offensive options for New Orleans. Their only second-chance points in the entire game came about halfway through the fourth quarter, when they already trailed by double digits. The rebounding battle went decisively in the Lakers' favor, a welcome development after their colossally shitty work on the boards in Game Four.

There was one small but useful defensive adjustment that the Lakers made today. Whenever a high screen ended with Paul isolated on Bynum on the perimeter, Drew didn't simply sag off and let Paul to shoot over him. Instead he closed out and trusted that help defense would be there if Paul went to the dribble. It worked pretty nicely. More often that not, Paul responded by dishing off instead of pressing the action, which allowed the Lakers to switch back into their natural assignments.

After a sputtering first period, the Laker offense was consistently splendid. There was a commitment to getting the ball inside, an effort rewarded by 30 free-throw attempts. Guys fought and scrapped on the offensive glass, especially Odom and Barnes. All of the starters plus Odom inflicted damage to tune of double-digit scoring. A special shout-out is owed to the point guard tandem of Derek Fisher and Steve Blake. Those two bros played a quietly excellent game, combining for 16 points on eight shots, six assists and just one turnover. Even Shannon Brown knocked down a couple threes (amid several other poorly thought-out attempts). Really, this was a balanced effort made up of solid contributions from all the rotation regulars.

And of course, it's another chapter in the anthology of Kobe's greatness. I don't know that we're totally out of the woods yet with his sprained ankle. There could be swelling tomorrow, and there will certainly be pain for him to manage. But he was terrific tonight and demonstrated yet again that far more often than not, he can be trusted to make the right call when it comes to his availability and minutes.

Now it's back to New Orleans for Game Six on Thursday. There are real benefits to closing this out as early as possible. Kobe's ankle could use the extra rest between rounds, as I'm sure could numerous other Laker body parts. It's time to shake that can of bug spray and send the Hornets into their offseason. This series has already provided more drama than we really need.











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