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After four strong games from the New Orleans Hornets, the Los Angeles Lakers were able to pull off their second straight blowout victory, effectively ending the series with a 98-80 rout on New Orleans’ home floor. The Hornets, like every other game in this series, came out strong and took the lead during the first quarter but the Lakers’ really dominated the game after the first quarter and New Orleans was never able to muster enough of a run to make the Lakers sweat.
With Chris Paul reverting back to his timid regular season form almost certainly because of fatigue the Hornets didn’t have any life in the second half and their offense was reduced to long isolation jumpers and some poor ball movement. You could tell Paul wasn’t going to dominate the game from the get go. He was passing up shot opportunities left and right and was forced to differ to his teammates. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but the differing he was doing was different from him getting the ball to his teammates in places where they could score; rather, he was forced, both by fatigue and solid Laker defense, to get the ball to his wing players beyond the three-point arc with their defenders in front of them. Essentially, when Paul picked up his dribble, the Hornets’ play was broken and he wasn’t able to pull off any magical passes in this game.
While the Hornets’ recurring theme of Chris Paul’s brilliance came to an end the Lakers continued to ride their big men to victory in this contest. The ball went inside early and often and though the Lakers started off shooting very badly from the field once Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol stopped kicking it back out and went strong to the basket the Lakers were getting better results out of their offense. The constant pressure that the Lakers put on the Hornet big men paid off not only on the scoreboard but also by getting the Hornets into foul trouble. For at least the fourth time in this series Emeka Okafor was forced to leave the game in the first quarter because the Lakers had gotten him into immediate foul trouble.
There was one play in particular that showed how aware the Lakers were of Okafor’s tendency to get into foul trouble. Right after Okafor was called for a foul on Andrew Bynum the Lakers went into the post to Pau Gasol, whom Okafor was now guarding. Pau didn’t like the position he had so he kicked it back out to Kobe Bryant. But Kobe, knowing Okafor was just whistled for his first foul, motioned to Gasol to re-post so that they could go right back at him. After an amazing game one performance Aaron Gray‘s success in this series was greatly diminished and the Lakers were smart to get the more athletic and active Okafor out of the game early once again.
Bynum was brilliant in this game and he has been pretty amazing all series long. Bynum had 18 points on eight-of-13 shooting and grabbed a game high 12 rebounds. What was most impressive about Bynum’s performance is that he continues to show extreme polish with his jumpshot. We’ve seen him hit the wide open 10 to 12 footer in this series on the drive and dish before but tonight we saw the Lakers give Bynum the ball with about six seconds to go in the shot clock with back to the crowd. Rarely has Bynum been given the ball in such a situation as the Lakers tend to Bynum the ball with his back to the basket when the shot clock is winding down. But Bynum didn’t panic. He took one dribble and nailed a stepback jumpshot over the outstretched arm of Emeka Okafor. Yes, the seven-foot-one Andrew Bynum nailed a contested stepback jumpshot tonight. It was one of the most impressive shots of the year for the youngster and it gave his teammates a lot of confidence in him. In the second half Bynum was getting the ball in the post frequently and his work on the offensive glass to keep a few key possessions alive did even more to further his teammates’ respect for him.
Gasol didn’t shoot the ball well but he gave 16 points and eight rebounds in the closeout victory. Overall he missed seven of his 12 shots but what I saw in the second half was a Gasol that was gaining confidence. He made a strong baseline move after spinning off his man to nearly throw it down before getting fouled, he got one of his pretty hookshots to go and he even knocked down a 21-foot jumpshot from the left corner that had him pumping his fist after it went down. The Lakers will need more from Pau against the Mavericks but Dallas doesn’t boast any kind of a physical presence similar to Carl Landry, which is a great thing for Pau. Landry was so great in this series. He used his thicker frame to push Gasol out of position, made it tough for Pau to move him at all on the block and really attacked him on the other end as well. Gasol won’t have an easy go of things guarding Dirk Nowitzki, but he won’t be at it alone – Lamar Odom, Ron Artest and Matt Barnes all figure to share some time on Dirk as well – but Nowitzki on the defensive end is a huge step down from Landry from a strength standpoint alone and when you take effort on that end and on the glass into effect you might as well call this a cakewalk for Pau on the offensive end compared to this series against the Hornets.
Kobe Bryant had a classic closeout game. He hit a huge three-pointer in the first quarter to give the Lakers their first lead of the game and did the same in the third quarter to push the Laker lead to 10 – Kobe followed that second triple by putting his finger over his mouth, signaling for the New Orleans crowd, which was in awe of the shot, to sit down and be quiet. Bryant had 24 points on six-of-16 shooting and that’s not his greatest game (it certainly doesn’t compare to his closeout game against the Suns) but he did hit those two three’s and he was in attack mode all night long, earning himself 10 free throws. Another key takeaway from this game for Bryant is that he got through it with relatively no pain in his ankle while only having to play 29 minutes. That’s two straight games of sub-30 minute play for Kobe. That coupled with the three day’s rest the Lakers will have before their series against the Mavericks starts on Monday should give Los Angeles a healthy Bryant.
You have to give a lot of credit to New Orleans for fighting to get to this point. In the grand scheme of things they only won two games in a best four out of seven series but when you factor in the limitations of their roster, especially with their leading scorer out. Chris Paul was absolutely magnificent in this series and his performance should go down as one of the greatest point guard compilations ever. The way he maximized the production of the guys around him was fun to watch but in the end, he was too tired to carry his team to a game seven.
The Lakers will move on to face the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. I’ll have a full preview of the series as well as a couple more posts on this series coming up tomorrow.