I thought this was where the Lakers were finally going to silence the doubters and prove that they meant business, that winning this third title was as important to them as the first and second. Sunday's lackluster performance did little to bolster my viewpoint, and has many questioning whether picking the Lakers as the favorite to win it all is reasonable.
Sure, the Lakers arguably have the most talented roster, but what does talent mean without cohesion and desire? Ask the 2004 champion Pistons. They had the heart and the teamwork to outwork a more talented Lakers team, and they came out on top. I stand by my opinion that when this Lakers team is firing on all cylinders, they cannot be beaten in a seven game series.
The question is: When will they begin to fire on all cylinders, and when the time comes, will it be too late?
Last game was, in my opinion, the best game the Hornets could possibly have. They were firing on all cylinders, they shot 59 percent in the first half and ended the game shooting nearly 52 percent. The Hornets bench scored 39 points, and Willie Green, Jarrett Jack and Aaron Gray shot a combined 14-18 from the field. The Lakers bench, on the other hand, had 21, but six of those came within the final minute with two meaningless Odom threes.
Once again, for the Lakers to succeed in this series, let alone in a championship run, Pau Gasol will need to be a presence in the paint both offensively and defensively. In game one, Gasol had only eight points and six rebounds on a meager 2-9 shooting from the field. He was consistently behind in his rotations, and allowed the Hornets' to have a field day in the paint. With Bynum in foul trouble, and nursing a sore knee back to health, Gasol needs to pick up the intensity.
In addition to Gasol's less than stellar performance, Lamar Odom turned in one of his own. If I remember correctly, he had but four points and one rebound at halftime. That is unacceptable for the newly crowned sixth man, especially in a game where Bynum was spending a majority of time on the pine. Odom only finished in double digits because of his two late three point shots that had no effect on the final outcome of the game.
A surprising bright spot was Ron Artest's offensive performance, scoring 16 points, hitting two of his three three point shots and going a perfect 6-for-6 from the charity stripe. I've said multiple times, if Artest can hit the corner three with some semblance of consistency, the Lakers will benefit greatly, and Sunday, Ron showed he has the potential to do so.
I think a big reason that Chris Paul was able to have his way with the Lakers was the poor defensive rotation within the paint and the absence of Steve Blake. The Lakers' defensive scheme relies on forcing ball handlers towards the big men, but when the big men are being lazy and not moving their feet, it all falls apart. I say the absence of Steve Blake not because he is a standout defensive player, but because Fisher had to play 39 minutes, and it is tough enough for Fisher to keep up with the young and lively Paul, but play him that long and he's bound to get a lot of easy looks.
Ultimately, this game comes to effort level in my opinion. If the Lakers put in the work, and play good, stingy defense, then I think they come out on top by double digits. If they allow the Hornets to get out on the break, and make it a fast-paced game, they are at a disadvantage. They need to operate well on offense, run their sets, and get good shots. I would love to see Kobe establish Pau and Drew early, keep forcing them to shoot, get them in a rhythm. If one of them, or even both, can get hot, I think the game is easily the Lakers to have.
Prediction: Lakers win.
Check out my 2011 NBA Playoff Predictions.
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