New Orleans Hornets vs. Los Angeles Lakers: A Recap
In the opening minute of the opening game against the Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Hornets power forward Carl Landry took an outlet pass from point guard Chris Paul, sprinted up the wing into the paint, and threw down a jam that shook the Staples Center floor.
It sent a message, clear and simple: the Hornets would not be going down without a fight.
The two-time defending champion Lakers should have dispatched their first-round opponents like a closer with a ten-run lead in the ninth inning. But that wasn’t the case, as New Orleans, without leading scorer David West, gave the Lakers a six-game dogfight that exposed LA's vulnerabilities.
While the Lakers were never really in trouble in games they won, they never really deviated from a nip-and-tuck pace until the final minutes. Each Lakers victory required different strategies and contributors; a complex web of tactics as diverse as it was entertaining.
So which is the bigger story, Los Angeles’s struggles or New Orleans’s grit? Each has its own merits and intricacies, but sadly that question can’t be answered until Los Angeles’ playoff run ends.
Of undeniable certainty, however, is that the Bees made a statement; that they embraced the monumental task of drawing a bigger, stronger, and more experienced team in the first round under a rookie head coach.
This writer suggested that a first-round matchup with the Lakers would be a blowout sweep that would expedite the process of relocating the franchise. But when the Hornets rose, their fans rose behind them, and for once, the team and its fan-base appeared to do justice to the motto of “passion, purpose, pride.”
Here’s a look at how the Hornets successfully lobbied for the franchise’s geographical entrenchment in this exciting first-round series.
Game 1: The Shocker
Game 1 in Los Angeles was a stakeout; an experiment to determine defensive strategies and matchups. For New Orleans, sticking swingman Trevor Ariza on Lakers’ shooting guard Kobe Bryant was the only obvious move, and they alternated Landry and center Emeka Okafor between the Laker tandem of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
Perhaps the shuffling of defensive matchups threw the champs, because they came out flatter than pita bread. The first quarter of the series set a lackadaisical defensive standard that reflected the sluggishness with which the Lakers, normally an excellent defensive team, carried into the playoffs. It also served as a wake-up call.
For Los Angeles, coming out in a 2-3 zone was about as effective as asking Charlie Sheen to drink O’Doul’s. Paul had little difficulty accessing the lane uncontested and creating high percentage shots for himself, finishing with 33 points on 11-18 shooting (to say nothing of the numerous shots that rimmed out by millimeters). The Hornets lacked a perimeter threat but accounted for it with stellar bench play and physical interior defense. Gasol couldn’t find his shot, and the Bees made Bynum earn his points and rebounds with hard fouls, swarms, and traps.
The Hornets were remarkably efficient and secure with their possessions, even in the open floor, committing just three turnovers all game. They displayed a clear and sustainable advantage over their lengthy but lumbering opponents in transition. They built a lead and kept it, a perpetual problem during the regular season, and forced Lakers’ shooting guard Kobe Bryant to play one-man catch-up. The Lakers ran screens for him and forced Ariza off the ball, but the threat was subverted by superb Hornet bench play, which outscored the Laker reserved 39-21.
Beyond that, it was a Chris Paul clinic, which purports to be a necessary element in Hornet victories. He got his looks, took them confidently, and pushed the tempo whenever possible. His vision was exceeded only by his aggressiveness and execution on both ends of the floor. The Lakers put small forward Ron Artest and his formidable one-on-one defense on him in a zone scheme, but to no avail.
Bottom Line: A combination of Lakers’ defensive slack and Hornets’ offensive ambition allowed Paul to run the show and elevate the games of everyone around him. Game 1 hinted at the importance of dictating tempo early on for both teams, and suggested that CP3 had regained all his pre-injury explosiveness, vision, and shooting.
Game 2: The Recovery
Game 2 was immediately noteworthy for its start; an epoch Los Angeles took more seriously this time. They played much more aggressively on defense and proficiently on offense, especially underneath, in turn stretching the Hornets on the perimeter. The Bees kept pace behind Landry and Ariza’s versatile scoring in the first, but when Laker reserves Matt Barnes and Shannon Brown began heating up from downtown, the trading of twos for threes yielded an unmanageable deficit.
Minimal production from Hornet shooters Marco Belinelli and Willie Green (nine combined points on 4-15 shooting) placed undue emphasis on points in the paint, a challenge the Bess handled in Game 1 but struggled with it in Game 2. And with Okafor’s early foul trouble, more turnovers, and an inability to establish rhythm in the half-court, the Hornets never really caught up. Paul couldn’t get off screens cleanly, a problematic trend that Los Angeles identified in Game 2, and while he continued to distribute well, he wasn’t a big enough threat to rattle the champs. Meanwhile the bench gave just 13 points to the Lakers 27
The Hornets kept pace until the fourth quarter behind starters scoring in the paint, but ultimately it was a tale of two teams in the Lakers’ opening home stint. They showed up and clicked on all cylinders in Game 2.
Defensively, the effort was there, but the results were not, particularly in terms of rebounding. Notwithstanding the fact that L.A. was sinking ridiculous shots, the importance of second chance points was drastically delineated in this game, as was the glaring issue of who would guard sixth man Lamar Odom. Again Ariza was the only viable candidate, and with Beli’s struggles against Artest, the Hornets revealed a chink in their defensive armor. Odom was huge, getting 16 points on 8-12 shooting in 28 minutes, and proving just how troublesome length could be for New Orleans. If New Orleans was defensively cohesive as a unit, then in one-one-one they unraveled like a cheap sweater, and the Lakers capitalized.
This game illustrated a common trend of the post-Shaq Lakers; with Kobe taking fewer shots and facilitating role players, the team usually wins. He and Gasol were both quiet, allowing Bynum’s offensive rebounding to carry the load underneath and open the floor for the shooters, who were on target.
Bottom Line: The Lakers prove they beat the Hornets in multiple ways; their superstars don’t have to explode. New Orleans, on the other hand, doesn’t have a prayer when its superstar doesn’t dominate.
Game 3: The Predictable
Game 3 in New Orleans exhibited a similar pattern to its predecessor, but with the stars aligning as Kobe and power forward Pau Gasol combined for 47 points in what would be the latter’s only decent showing in the series.
A sloppy start gave way to a defensive battle, and former Laker Trevor Ariza again surfaced as the Hornets’ preeminent offensive threat in the first quarter.
The Bees continued tweaking their rotation throughout the first half, pitting 7-foot power forward Jason Smith on Odom in relief of Landry (foul trouble).
The Hornets attempted to spread the Lakers defense with multiple ball-handlers and three-guard sets, and were in turn victimized by that strategy.
Meanwhile, the bench scoring was again lopsided in favor of Los Angeles (20-9). All season long, the Hornets reserves had been accorded simple expectations: defend, rebound, and play smart.
In the playoffs, this young unit needed to carry a much heavier offensive load, and with point guard Jarrett Jack struggling, the Hornet reserves never established any rhythm or momentum of their own.
Bynum again dominated the offensive glass, with more help from Gasol, but with the looks the Lakers’ shooters were getting, it might not have mattered. At least until they started getting to the line on their second chances and pulling away.
Paul and Ariza carried New Orleans in the first half, getting long minutes, and Ariza was especially effective in forcing Kobe to settle for mid-range jumpers and fade-aways.
Through scrappy defense and hustle, the Hornets kept the deficit manageable into the third quarter, pushing the fast-break when possible, but they never caught the Lakers, who sealed it after a 10-3 run to start the fourth.
The Artest/Belinelli match (or mismatch as it turned out) really began asserting itself in this game, and both teams would respond by getting those two more heavily involved offensively.
Game 3 reaffirmed the defensive conundrum facing the Hornets; the Lakers established the efficacy of playing inside-out in Game 2, and celebrated it in Game 3.
Boxing out Bynum is tough enough for one man, defending him in the low-post is nearly impossible, and while the swarms and traps worked against the Lakers center in Game 1, such was not the case on Friday.
The Hornets were consequently stretched like New York pizza dough all across the perimeter, and the Lakers made them pay, going 7-for-16 from three-point land.
The Hornets’ big men again struggled to set good screens for Paul, limiting his access to the lane. They prevented the Hornets’ superstar from creating open space, drawing double teams, and making passes no one else could make.
Whether he’s taking a mid-range shot, penetrating to get fouled, or kicking out to an open shooter, Paul works wonders off the dribble when he has space to operate, and the Lakers yanked that away with a more physical defensive showing.
Offensive efficiency has to improve on all cylinders for New Orleans to have a shot, and the bench has play big. Not just noticeable, but big.
Okafor showed signs of life for the first time, but with no perimeter threats on either end and ample offensive rebounding, the Lakers controlled the tempo and scored easily.
Game 4: The Equalizer
Game 4 was the brought the series back to equilibrium, and it again came on the heels of early Laker sluggishness.
Throughout these four games, a direct correlation between the Lakers’ opening level of offensive aggressiveness and the final outcome became quite visible. No inverse relationship here like with Kobe’s shooting.
The Belinelli-Artest mismatch became more pronounced, but Artest’s proficiency both under the hoop and beyond the arc did not spread to his teammates.
The Ariza-Bryant matchup teetered towards disparity as Ariza successfully hacked and finished at the rim throughout the first half, finishing with 16 points to Kobe’s goose egg.
No ball screens, just Ariza, a zone defense, and the basket; unlikely components that spelled first-half success and sustenance for the Hornets.
The Bees showed improvement against the inside-out, triangle offense Phil Jackson has championed and popularized and limited the Lakers to mid-range looks, but the starting duo of Belinelli and Okafor was absent for the fourth consecutive first half.
Paul was quiet in the first half before putting on a clinic in the second. Finishing with a triple-double, the Hornets superstar dissected the Lakers defense like a geeky kid with a frog in science class, doing everything to keep his team ahead.
The Lakers had no answer, rotating between Derek Fisher, Bryant, and even Artest on the six-foot phenom. But to be fair, CP3’s teammates executed the pick-n-roll much better in this game, and Laker defenders were giving him some serious cushion.
Throughout the series and especially in Game 4, the Hornets executed well in transition and beat the Laker big men up and down the floor. But nowhere was the Lakers’ length advantage more glaring than in offensive rebounding, so fast-break opportunities were limited for New Orleans.
Los Angeles was dictatorial on the offensive glass for the first two games; New Orleans curtailed that in Game 4 through physical play at the four and five positions. They gained momentum through effective transition offense and engendered the kind of streaky play that has come to characterize their club.
Like Game 1, the Lakers came out without fire and aggression, the Hornet bench contributed, CP3 balled out in every phase of the game. The reasonable conclusion was also optimistic; the Hornets can win without a shooting threat through physical and athletic superiority, but could that trend be maintained?
Game 5: The Resurgence
Game 5 answered the question posed by Game 4, and not favorably for Hornets faithful. And if the Bees needed confirmation of that, they once again needed to look no further than their own backboard, which they struggled to control throughout the game.
Los Angeles came out roaring and eager to disabuse the notion that they were soft and old, and it showed.
But if the unconventional start for Los Angeles was surprising, then New Orleans’ initially adept handling of it was shocking. The Hornets shot well throughout the first quarter behind Belinelli having his first (and only) good shooting game of the series.
The Hornets effectively screened him for catch-and-shoot jumpers, but as usual, offensive production was disproportionate amongst the starters, with Landry and Paul having very quiet halves.
Even with the former’s rebounding and the latter’s vision and distribution, relegating their scoring threats immediately yielded noticeable impacts.
Even with Belinelli stepping up, the Hornets hadn’t established a viable perimeter threat all series, so the Lakers focused on tightening their interior defense.
But again the Hornets responded, getting some points in the paint and showing some versatility in the frontcourt. Meanwhile, the Lakers’ superstars were quiet, leaving it to the role players to cover the margin.
Los Angeles continued to dominate the offensive glass and create second looks for their shooters, and benefited from 11 Hornet turnovers.
They played their fastest game of the series and got Kobe going late in the second quarter with Ariza in foul trouble. But again, the Hornets responded to a faster, more physical Lakers effort with some innovative offense.
Not so much in the second half. The Lakers picked up the third they way they’d ended the second: on fire. Continuing to shoot well from mid-range, generating second chance points, and playing tight interior defense, they built the lead throughout the third, while Paul and the Hornets shot much more poorly.
Solid contributions from the Laker bench helped seal it, while Jarrett Jack, New Orleans’s biggest threat off the bench, continued to struggle. Willie Green was better and Aaron Gray rebounded well, but it wasn’t enough without a dominating performance from Paul and an impactful performance from Landry.
In a game where role players made the difference, the Lakers were undoubtedly superior. This game was undoubtedly their best defensively, while New Orleans simply embodied a tale of two shooting halves.
Turnovers and points in the paint, the perennial detriments, were again staggeringly in Los Angeles’s favor.
Game 6: The Flatlining
Game 6 finally demonstrated the defensive efficiency each team is capable of, at least until the fourth quarter. The Lakers’ frontcourt again came out with brute force, conclusively proving that Okafor is no match for Bynum, foul trouble or not.
The Lakers followed the blueprint established in Games 3 and 5: monitoring the paint on both ends and forcing the Hornets to beat them with their shooting. The Bees temporarily answered the call in Game 5 but fell far short in the series clincher.
With Pau Gasol consistently obsolete in the series, Bynum was given a much looser offensive rein that led to a huge display of offensive versatility interspersed with prodigious strength. The eight offensive rebounds were a nice touch too.
That might have carried the Lakers to an insurmountable lead in the first half, but both teams again played sloppily. And try as the Hornets might, they didn’t finish drives or reach the stripe particularly well, and with no shooting touch or Chris Paul takeover, all the offensive momentum was irrevocably sapped.
As for CP3, the Lakers bounced him around like a pinball, preventing the Wake Forest product from getting off screens cleanly and into the paint. This time it was Emeka Okafor who had the solitary impact amongst the Bees’ starting five.
Los Angeles’s length re-asserted itself in the second half, and with Ariza in foul trouble, the Hornets suddenly had no answer for the champs’ swingmen.
Barnes and Odom torched the Hornets for a combined 22 points off the bench, taking full advantage of a sluggish start and Hornet foul troubles. The bench again fell way short of expectations; the Lakers again produced numerous second chance points, and that was it.
This game illustrated how enervated New Orleans had become over the course of the series. With unreliable bench production after Game 1, the starters received exceptionally long minutes that challenged them to play fast whenever possible, and the physical taxing was obvious.
Once Bynum asserted his potential to dominate, the Hornets seemed to lose their zeal and fold, ending a gritty, scrappy series once and for all.