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The parallels between the Lakers’ first round series against the New Orleans Hornets this year and their first round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder last year continue to show themselves. I detailed some of the major storylines between the two series’ that have been familiar in a column over the weekend but this game brought about some more similar occurrences.
Just like last season, after entering game five on their home floor with the series tied at 2-2, surprising everyone around the league, the Lakers delivered a blowout in game five to get themselves back on track, defeating the Hornets 106-90. And just like game five of the Thunder series, the Lakers were able to rest Kobe Bryant for a significant amount of time over the course of the game while their big men delivered solid bounceback performances.
It certainly didn’t look like the Lakers would end up blowing out New Orleans after the first quarter. The Hornets were nearly perfect from the field in the first quarter. Every jumper, every floater and every lay-up was going in for New Orleans and thanks to their amazing offensive start they were up nine on the Lakers after the first quarter. At that point there was some serious panic amongst the crowd. The Lakers were doing alright offensively but their inability to get stops had their fans wondering if they’d be able to stop New Orleans.
Luckily for the Lakers, Shannon Brown, who had given Los Angeles four pretty poor minutes in the first quarter, hit a pair of three’s to prevent the Hornets from blowing the game open. Brown’s outside shooting cut the Hornets lead down to one at one point and Matt Barnes even gave the Lakers a second quarter lead with a tip-in off his own miss. The Lakers’ bench delivered a great performance on both ends of the floor in the second quarter, battling back from that 10-point first quarter deficit by going on a 10-0 run to start the second period. Brown finally gave the Lakers the spark they needed out of him and the Hornets’ fantastic initial run had been withheld.
The Hornets would regain the lead thanks to a few Willie Green buckets but with 3:31 left in the second quarter and the Hornets up 44-40, the complexity of the game and possibly the entire series changed. The play looked rather elementary from the start. Pau Gasol was posting up on the right block and it seemed as if he’d be able to get a good look off. Instead, Trevor Ariza, who was checking Kobe Bryant, decided to double down on Gasol and shifted his way towards Pau. Gasol, ever the willing passer, recognized the double team immediately and spun a pretty little bounce pass to Kobe Bryant at the top of the key. Just a few plays before Bryant had caught the ball in that same location, pump-faked an aggressively closing out Ariza and took a couple of steps in before nailing the 18-foot jumpshot.
This time, however, Bryant chose to go all the way to the rim. Bryant blew by Ariza, who was again closing out on Bryant to prevent the three-point shot, leaving him susceptible to any and all ball fakes, took off a from a few feet in front of the free throw line, hung in the air for a few moments and then delivered one of the most vicious dunks of his entire career. Bryant cocked back a one-handed monster jam, slamming it home over the outstretched arm of Emeka Okafor. It was one of the few dunks Bryant has unleashed this season, his second of the series and his first defining poster since in a couple of years. That dunk fueled the Lakers in the final three minutes of the half and they outscored New Orleans 12-7 to end the half with a three-point lead.
To create a parallel to another playoff series, Bryant’s dunk reminded me a lot of Shannon Brown’s dunk on Chris Andersen in the 2008 Western Conference Finals. The series was tied at 2-2 and the Nuggets were up by five points in the third quarter at the time. Brown’s jam ignited the Lakers and they ended up coming back to win the game and the series in six games.
The Lakers came out in the second half smelling blood in the water. That Bryant dunk had given them the chance to take control of the game and the series and they did so as soon as the third quarter began. Derek Fisher nailed a three-pointer as the shot clock wound down on the Lakers’ first possession, Andrew Bynum established deep post position and got himself goods looks near the rim, Ron Artest continued his excellent series by fighting on the offensive glass and hitting his outside shots and Pau Gasol finally started to get some things going in the post.
Then, there was Kobe again, pumping up his team, his crowd and his city. With a little over eight minutes left in the third quarter, Bryant caught the ball at the top of the key once again, this time choosing to run a give and go with Andrew Bynum on the right wing. Kobe got the ball back, blew by Ariza and delivered a beautiful left handed flush on Carl Landry. Bryant was fired up and so were the Lakers. Kobe reiterated the fact that he likes to save up his dunks for moments that he feels his team needs a jolt of energy after the game and Kobe picked a fine time to unleash these two crushes. That dunk put the Lakers up 10 and though the Hornets were able to cut it to five twice during the quarter thanks to consecutive three-pointers from Marco Belinelli and Trevor Ariza on separate occasions but the Lakers were able to increase their lead to nine by the end of the quarter.
At the start of the fourth the Lakers would once again put together a run. The Lakers went on a 10-2 run to start the period thanks to Andrew Bynum, Matt Barnes and Lamar Odom and a Steve Blake three-pointer with 6:32 left in the game that put the Lakers up 16 seemed to be the official breaking point for the Hornets. Phil Jackson was able to sit Kobe Bryant until the six minute mark in the fourth and he only played three minutes before exiting the game in favor of Shannon Brown. The Lakers were able to establish a dominant lead in the fourth quarter which did more than send a message or improve team confidence, it allowed Bryant to rest his ankle, even if it didn’t look so hurt.
Bryant only played 28 minutes in this game after playing no fewer than 34 minutes in the first four games of the series. Kobe also delivered his most efficient performance of the series, putting in 19 points on eight-of-13 shooting. Bryant only took one three-pointer after averaging more than three a game in the series entering the night and instead opted to attack the basket where he made an impact not only with the points his thunderous slams brought but also the energy it produced for his teammates and for the crowd. This is the kind of game that I think we’ll end up seeing from Bryant in two to three years when he’s no longer able to score 30 a night at will. Obviously I don’t expect him to be dunking on everybody but efficient scoring nights with two or three plays that really get the crowd involved in the game is something I think we can expect from Bryant down the line.
As for right now, the Lakers were finally able to get something out of their starting bigs in the same game. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol combined to score 34 points, grab 18 rebounds, dish out six assists and block five shots. The scoring still isn’t quite at the level you’d want for Gasol, who is still having trouble with the physicality of Carl Landry on the block, but Bynum has done a great job of scoring the ball in this series. Not only has Bynum gotten some of his pretty post moves to fall but his short-range jumpshot has come a long way of late and it’s really putting the Hornet big men in a tough position. Gasol had his fair share of great plays in this game too but if you want to nitpick after a 16-point victory, you can say that Gasol needs to get the number of field goals he makes per game up to seven or eight rather than the five made baskets he’s averaging in this series so far.
Lamar Odom had some nice energy plays but he’s still in a funk offensively. He missed eight of his 12 shots and was trying to hard to hit the dagger three-pointer in the fourth quarter. If the Lakers hadn’t been so good defensively and the Hornets actually converted after one of Odom’s missed three-point attempts we could be sitting here blaming Odom for a loss. But we’re not and Odom still had seven rebounds and a number of plays that only Odom can make. Fellow reserve forward Matt Barnes may have missed the majority of his shots too (he was one-of-four on the game), but he brought a lot of energy to the game on both ends of the floor, grabbed four rebounds (all of which were offensive) and continued to fill the lane for the Lakers on his way to scoring five points.
Derek Fisher deserves a lot of praise after his performance in this game. Not only did Fisher score 13 points on five-of-six shooting with a pair of three’s, three assists, two rebounds, a steal and a block, but Fisher was excellent on Chris Paul defensively. Paul only scored 13 points from the field on 12 shots, he committed four turnovers and he was held to four assists after the first quarter. It’s not that Fisher played harder in this game than in the previous four but he did have a lot more success against Paul than in any other game in this series. Credit the Laker bigs for doing a good job on screen and rolls but there were a lot of possessions in which Fisher forced Paul to pick up his dribble and took away all of his passing lanes by playing sound, fundamental defense. Paul did abuse Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and Matt Barnes in this game with his mid-range jumper but he was dancing when Fisher was on him and you credit the old vet for Chris Paul’s un-game-four-like performance.
The Los Angeles Lakers needed to win this game and they did a good job re-establishing themselves in a position of power in this series. The Lakers will have to win game six on the Hornets’ home floor if they want to avoid a game seven but they’ve already won in New Orleans’ home arena in this series and there is a good reason to believe that: a) the Lakers’ 16-point blowout will end up demoralizing the Hornets and b) Trevor Ariza and Marco Belinelli won’t shoot eight-of-13 from three-point range in the same game for the rest of the series (or their careers).
The Lakers may have looked a little susceptible after their game four loss to the Hornets but if there were any questions about the Lakers’ and their championship aspirations Kobe Bryant answered them with a poster slam on Emeka Okafor in the second quarter of game five.