Chasing Down The Latest NBA News
The New Orleans Hornets shocked the world last night with their victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, effectively tying their first round series with the defending champs 2-2. As is the case with almost any loss for Los Angeles, Laker fans have gotten a bit antsy given New Orleans’ surprising ability to contend with the champs and people that love to root against the Lakers have been given tons of ammo to fire at Laker supporters. Though this situation is rather unenviable, there is no reason for the Lakers to panic. As the defending champions, the Lakers have gone through up and down stretches before – and yes, that includes the playoffs – and just a year ago the Lakers found themselves in a similar position only to end up winning the NBA Championship.
Last year it was the Oklahoma City Thunder that gave the Lakers a scare, forcing them into a tough six games series that could have gone to seven games if it wasn’t for a Pau Gasol tip-in in the final seconds of game six. The Thunder were a much more talented group than these Hornets are. The only reason that nobody expected them to put up much of a fight was because of their inexperience. With Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Jeff Green all barely growing facial hair by the time the post-season began, it was tough to envision such a young team being able to compete with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and the rest of the Laker stars.
But the Thunder played extremely hard nosed basketball and though they didn’t win any games at Staples Center, they did take care of business at home and after four games, the series was tied at two games a piece. The Lakers’ game four loss in that series was far worse than their loss last night as the Thunder blew them out by 21 on their home floor.
What’s even more interesting about these two series’ is that similar story lines have developed in each of them. Take a look at some of the recurring themes the Lakers have dealt with in their match-ups with the Thunder and Hornets:
The (re)-emergence of a brilliant point guard.
Though Russell Westbrook was not dominating games the way Chris Paul has, other than distributing the basketball he put in similar efforts against the Lakers last season. Westbrook was a different kind of demon for the Lakers. Oklahoma City did not run nearly as many screen and rolls for Westbrook but they didn’t need to. Westbrook could get to the basket at any time with Derek Fisher guarding him and when Kobe Bryant made his now series-ly switch to guarding the opposition’s point guard, Westbrook was able to hit the mid-range jumpshots that Kobe was conceding.
Westbrook ended up averaging 21 points, six assists and six rebounds in that series on 47% shooting from the field. The way he attacked the Lakers in transition and crashed the glass with reckless abandon brought about questions of the Lakers’ demise just like Paul’s work through the first four games of this series has.
Without a player like Kevin Durant around to help with the scoring Chris Paul has obviously had to carry a heavier load. He’s averaged 26 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds through the first four games of this series on 57% shooting from the field and 50% shooting from beyond the arc. While there’s no questioning Paul’s play has been better than Westbrook’s, the Lakers have handled the onslaught of a star point guard before and without any other star players in New Orleans to help out Paul, their lack of depth combined with the amount of work Paul has had to put in just to tie the series should ultimately play to the Lakers’ advantage.
Questions about Pau Gasol’s toughness.
It seems like Pau Gasol gets called out just about any time the Lakers lose but at least in these two cases the blame was justified. Of course, that’s not to say I think he is soft, but no matter what the issue is with Gasol – whether his shot is off, his effort level is low or he’s getting scored on down on the block – it always comes back to his toughness. It’s not fair, but it happens and his play deserved to be called out last season against the Thunder and it does again now.
The problems this year are a bit different. Gasol actually produced some all-star level numbers against the Thunder last season (18 points, 12 rebounds per game on 53% shooting) but his toughness came into question because the energy level of players like Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka allowed them to outwork Pau on some critical possessions. In just 26 minutes per game off the bench Ibaka averaged eight points (57% shooting), seven rebounds and two blocks per game. With a high flyer like Ibaka running up and down the floor with Westbrook, Gasol looked a step behind all series long until he hit the game-winning shot in game six to seal the series victory.
Against New Orleans, Pau has struggled to get anything going offensively. He’s been a bit better in games three and four but his overall production during the series has been very bad for someone of his skill level. Gasol has averaged just 13 points, and, perhaps more importantly, eight rebounds per game in this series while shooting a guard-like 42% from the floor. The Lakers are the defending champs because of two things: they have an incredible wing player and because they have a unique size advantage that no other team in the league can match. Gasol has done the Hornets a favor by lacking aggression on the offensive end while also allowing guys like Carl Landry and Sean Marks to outwork him on both ends of the floor.
The Lakers got a redeeming tip for Gasol to win game six for them against the Thunder and they’ll need a similar play or game from Pau to make up for his poor play during the first four games of this series in order to win in six games.
A Kobe Bryant injury.
Last season Bryant had a pair of impactful injuries: a broken index finger on his shooting hand and a banged up knee that prevented him from getting good lift on his jumpshots. Bryant had some trouble dealing with the athletes Oklahoma City was throwing at him and he had to settle for some tough shots because he couldn’t get by his man with the bum knee – and on those shots, the knee prevented him from getting good lift, creating a sort of basketball double negative.
Bryant shot just 41% from the field against the Thunder and combined to shoot 15-of-39 in the Lakers’ two losses to the Thunder. The Hornets have caused similar troubles for Bryant who has been dealing with another knee injury this season – one so bad that it kept him from practicing for the majority of the season. Additionally, Bryant re-aggravated a serious left ankle injury in the closing minute of game four and reports out of New Orleans were that Bryant left the arena on crutches.
In game five of the Thunder series the Lakers blew out the Thunder thanks to a 46-point outing from Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum while Bryant was able to take the night off in a way by shooting just nine shots and scoring just 13 points. With his ankle acting up again, Bryant will likely have to take a lesser role in game five than usual but the Laker bigs have proven before that they can win a playoff game for the Lakers without much help from Bryant. That comes back to Gasol again, who needs to step it up after being called out after his first four games.
So long as they can do that, Bryant will be in position to closeout a team on the road for the fourth time since last April and he’s said many times before that there’s nothing more pleasing to him than ending a team’s season in front of their home crowd.
The moral of the story here is that the Lakers have been through this situation before. Though Chris Paul’s flashy performances may have Laker fans a bit more frightened than they usually are, it’s hard to believe he’ll be able to keep up his current pace. And if you take a look at the rest of the talent on New Orleans’ roster, it should be easier to sleep at night if you’re backing Los Angeles.
All it will take for the Lakers to win this series is for them to come out and match New Orleans’ intensity, which is something they haven’t done all series. Matching the Hornets’ effort level will eliminate the only advantage they have in this series and when it comes down to individual skill, the Lakers have the clear advantage. We have seen the Lakers fail to show up a couple of times in this series but every time their backs have been against the wall for the past two years, the Lakers have responded and theirs no reason to believe the Lakers won’t come out Tuesday night with a spirited effort to put the talk of a monumental upset to rest.