Chris Paul may have just awoken a sleeping giant.
With the New Orleans Hornets 93-88 defeat of the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night, Chris Paul and company will head into Game 5 assured of one thing: They have gotten under the Lakers' skin in a very real way. This is not an achievement that should be taken lightly, for reasons both good and bad for Hornets fans.
It is not easy to tick off the Lakers. Kobe Bryant may be an irritable, fiery a competitor as he is. But the Lakers? Jackson? Gasol? Fischer? Those guys don’t rattle. They don’t panic, and they certainly aren’t panicking now.
But they’re taking the Hornets much more seriously than they were a week ago.
For Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul’s relentless—and borderline historic—exploitation of Los Angeles’ greatest area of weakness must come as a slap in the face—a direct shot across the bow from one generation to another.
Even fighting through a knee injury, Paul has managed to pick the Lakers’ defense apart more thoroughly than a dog obsessively gnawing on a bone. His domination of Los Angeles has been Kobe-esque in its totality.
If Kobe and Co. were planning on cruising through the first round, perhaps reserving energies for future opponents, plans have certainly changed. In the remaining first-round games, the Hornets will get everything the Lakers have. Fouls will be harder. Intensity will be ratcheted up. Entering the winning time of the NBA playoffs, where fates are decided, the Hornets are entering the Lakers world.
For the Lakers, last night’s loss must come as a wake-up call of mammoth proportions. The Hornets will now have their undivided attention.
Historically, an angry and motivated Lakers team is a very bad thing for opponents. Less experienced teams are often unable to match the experience, size, clutch shot-making and intangibles that Los Angeles brings to the table.
Though they may be getting older, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson are still two of the best we have ever seen. They have a knack for raising their games to new heights when it matters most, and helping others do the same.
However, there is also reason for optimism amongst Hornets fans. A motivated Lakers team is a Lakers team that has been affected. They have seen that the Hornets can legitimately play with them, and that Chris Paul indeed has the talent to single-handedly end their championship aspirations.
They have learned these things because they are truths. What the Hornets have shown is good enough to beat the Lakers, even if they are fully motivated.
Unfortunately for the Hornets, the Lakers have one trump card up their sleeves—they are the Lakers. They have been here before and have emerged victorious. They are a battle-tested unit forged in the fires of championship success. And if they smell blood in a crucial moment, even for a second, it could be all she wrote for New Orleans.
An angered Lakers team will have their big game instincts heightened to their fullest extents, searching for these moments of weakness at all times. By scaring the Lakers, or at least startling them temporarily, the Hornets may have poked the bear.
There is much that will be determined in the last three games of this LA/New Orleans series. It will show whether Chris Paul’s generation will start taking over now or if they will have to yield to the old guard for another season.
We will also see in the days ahead exactly how much Kobe and the Lakers have left in the tank—if they are still the champions most think they are or if they are just another contender who has been passed over by father time.
The Hornets have proved they are feisty. But there is a huge difference between feistiness and greatness. They Lakers have proven they are great. Will New Orleans be able to do the same?