In case you missed it, the Los Angeles Lakers are back!
Kidding, of course, but it's hard to say that the team hasn't looked drastically different in its past two contests (both wins, first over the Utah Jazz on Friday night, then over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday).
A suddenly passive Kobe Bryant (he dished out 14 assists in each of those two games) has keyed this mini-resurgence for the Lakers. With less of a focus on finding his own offense, the league's third-leading scorer (28.7 points per game) has found the energy to fill out his stat sheet with MVP-caliber numbers (in addition to the assists, he corralled nine rebounds in both games).
Of course, just as Bryant the scorer showed us, it takes more than the efforts of one player to find victories. And that's where the Lakers have seen their biggest improvement: in terms of a balanced scoring attack. Seven different players reached double figures in at least one of those two victories.
Standing in the way of what would be just the Lakers' third winning streak of at least three games, though, are the New Orleans Hornets.
Coach Monty Williams' team has enjoyed its best stretch of basketball in January, holding an 8-6 record for the month.
With a healthy Eric Gordon (16.8 points per game) back in the mix, New Orleans fans have just recently gained a glimpse of this team's true potential. That impressive January record includes victories over the 36-11 San Antonio Spurs, the 29-15 Memphis Grizzlies and the 25-22 Houston Rockets.
The dynamic pairing of Gordon and rookie Anthony Davis draws most of the national buzz, but it's been the unheralded Ryan Anderson who's paced this Hornets offense with 17 points per game.
Time: Tuesday, January 29, 10:30 p.m. ET
Records: New Orleans Hornets (15-29), Los Angeles Lakers (19-25)
Betting Line: Lakers -10
Injuries (via CBSSports.com)
Steve Blake (abdomen), probable
Jordan Hill (knee), out
Eric Gordon, SG, Hornets vs. Kobe Bryant, SG, Lakers
In a matchup featuring one of the all-time greatest shooting guards and a rising star at the position, this is clearly one that the Hornets must find a way to keep close.
Gordon's a key piece of this franchise moving forward but may never be of greater importance than he is now with Davis still adjusting to the NBA game. He's the one constant threat on offense with the ability to score when the rest of the team bogs down.
A dynamic scorer with the perimeter stroke to light up defenses from deep (career 36.7 three-point percentage) and the handles and athleticism to shred them off the dribble, Gordon is the definition of a tough cover. His 3.1 assists per game won't jump off the stat sheet but shows his willingness and ability to find his teammates.
And he's not going to shy away from Bryant on the defensive end. He's pesky and instinctive in his approach to that end of the floor, harassing his individual matchup and closing down the passing lanes.
With all of that being said, though, this is a nightmare matchup for Gordon—not due to any fault of his own, but simply because Bryant is playing his most effective (and most inspired) basketball of the season.
He may have appeared unguardable throughout the early goings of the season, but his decision to actively seek out his teammates on offense has earned him that lofty label. His decision making of late has been perhaps unrivaled by any point guard in the game (he has just six turnovers to those 28 assists), but is accentuated by his abilities to first read when his team needs him to score and then to use his versatility to convert those scoring chances.
What doesn't show up on his already impressive stat sheet, though, (outside of his four steals and two blocks in his past two games) is the way that the 34-year-old has dialed back the clock defensively.
The nine-team All-Defensive first-teamer not only accepts the toughest defensive assignment, he seeks it out. And now that his Lakers teammates aren't waiting on him to bail them out on the offensive end, he has the energy level to bring his best to the defensive end.
Anthony Davis, PF, Hornets
Davis has proven more than worthy of his draft status (first overall in the 2012 NBA draft) and the subsequent preseason buzz.
Given his 6'10" frame, lengthy wingspan and lateral quickness stemming from his past life as a point guard (via Michael Lee of The Washington Post), he figured to have any easier transition to the league on the defensive end.
While he's affirmed those salivating scouting reports in that respect (he ranks in New Orleans' top two with 7.8 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals per game), he's already shown he's a force on both ends of the floor.
His 52.3 field-goal percentage already ranks second among all rookies with at least six field-goal attempts per game, but could actually be on its way up before the season's finished.
The deft mid-range touch he displayed during one season at the University of Kentucky (and over the summer with Team USA) hasn't yet reached the NBA hardwood, as he's converted just 27 percent of his attempts this season.
He'll be challenged in this matchup by both overwhelming size (Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol) and strength (Metta World Peace and Earl Clark), but he has a versatile enough offensive repertoire to attack either type of defender.
Lakers 107, Hornets 93
Ask me to predict this game a week ago, and I may have given you a completely different outcome. At the very least, I wouldn't have offered such a wide margin of victory for L.A.
While the Hornets did defeat the Grizzlies their last time out, that game marked just the second victory in the team's past five outings. Over that stretch, New Orleans has surrendered 102 points per game.
Meanwhile, the Lakers appear on the brink of a potentially season-saving type of run. They're sharing the basketball, implementing elements of coach Mike D'Antoni's system without completely losing their identity and finally enjoying playing together (per Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com).
The Hornets may hold the better long-term projection in the Western Conference, but the Lakers are the only one of these two teams playing with a purpose for this season.
Considering that the Lakers finally appear to be playing with a sense of urgency, this doesn't look like a game that they're going to give away.
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