Archives For March 2008

Preview and Chat: Seattle Sonics

Reed —  March 21, 2008

Records: Lakers: 47-21 (1 seed); Sonics: 16-52 (Hoping for Beasley).
Lakers Offense: 113.8 pts per possession (4th); Lakers Defense: 106.5 pts per possession (6th).
Sonics Offense: 101.4 pts per possession (30th); Sonics Defense: 109 pts per possession 110.8 (23rd).
Starting Five Lakers: Odom, Vlad, Turiaf, Kobe, Fish.
Starting Five Sonics: Green, Wilcox, Petro, Durant, Watson.
Key Reserves Sonics: Collison, Ridonur, Wilkins.

Seattle Notes: Looking at the recent comments from Shaq and Grant Hill (basically saying they think the Sonics belong in Seattle) I found myself thinking, yea, why shouldn’t they stay. Great city, passionate fans (remember how loud it got there during the Payton/Kemp years) and people willing to put up the money (various billionaires have stepped forward with a plan that splits the bill with the State). Just doesn’t seem right for them to leave.

Laker Notes: The two wins over Dallas and Utah, coming against the two best home teams in the NBA, give the team a much needed boost headed down the home stretch. I think Phil Jackson should be at the top of the list for Coach of the Year. For all those that think of him as guy who can only win with talent, look at what he has done developing Sasha, Jordan, Ronny, even Luke. Finding roles that work for LO, Vlad, he has just pushed the right buttons this year, and with the talent on the roster (especially with the injured players coming back) I like the Lakers chances in any playoff series.

Tonight: The Lakers cannot take the Sonics lightly, they stuck with Phoenix the other night thanks to a sloppy 27 turnovers by Phoenix. The Sonics don’t really have anyone for Kobe, and this could be a game he goes off early and rests late. Regardless, it would be great to see the crisp offensive execution and focused defense by the team exhibited from basically start to finish against the Jazz.

Where to watch: FSN and League Pass (one of the Sonics announcer is the great Steve “Snapper” Jones).

Tournament: Whose bracket is still in tact? Whose bracket is busted? Western Kentucky game was awesome, Stephen Curry from Davidson dropped 40, and is Mayo going pro?

Kwame A.

News: Newble signing is official.

Preview and Chat: Utah Jazz

Kurt —  March 20, 2008

Records: Lakers 46-21 (1 seed); Jazz 45-24 (4 seed)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.7 (4th); Jazz 114.5 (2nd)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (5th); Jazz 108.2 (14th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radmanovic, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf
Jazz: Deron Williams, Ronnie Brewer, Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur

Tennis Anyone? I’m going out to Palm Desert for the weekend to watch the last couple rounds of the Indian Wells tennis tournament (the Pacific Life Open, on your local Fox network). I mean, I don’t want to go, but if my wife is forcing me to go look at teenage Russian girls in short skirts, who am I to say no? For me it will be a weekend of tennis and then going to a bar for lunch to watch my NCAA pool crumble, so no new posts from me until next week. However, a few of the regular favorites around here may pitch in.

Because I’ve got packing to do this will be short today. Not that I’m an efficient packer with the tourney on….

Lakers Notes: Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and again, and so it is that it turns out my hunch that Phil Jackson was trying to take some pressure off of Andrew Bynum was correct. Turns out the kids should be ready to get some minutes in about two weeks, coming off the bench for half-a-dozen or so games to end the season.

The best part of that is being able to get some minutes with Bynum and Gasol on the floor at the same time, a lineup we are going to need to come through against some teams in the playoffs.

The Jazz Coming In: We got some Jazz questions answered by the men behind the My Utah Jazz blog (and check out my answers to their questions, where I defend Fisher).

Why the Jekyll/Hyde routine with this team between the home (29-3) and road (16-21)?

Million dollar question. While the cat’s away, the mice will play? Time for Jerry to institute his famous curfew apparently. How crazy is this: The Jazz have lost to every Eastern conference non-playoff team except Milwaukee. Are you kidding me? This team always seems to come prepared for the big games against playoff caliber teams, but they struggle against lesser opponents. The ESA is a tough place to play because Utah fans only have one team to get riled up for. I haven’t been to Staples, but I have been to the Pepsi Center, and it didn’t come close to the energy at…um….Energy Solutions Arena. The players seem to feed off of the crowd.

What is Kyle Korver providing on the court that has helped out the Jazz offense so much? Is it just a matter of finally having a shooter that can really spread the floor?

I have had this question on a few other chats with bloggers. All I can say he is has gone from Zero to Hero. The guy was the Jeff Hornacek of this decade. His ability to spread the floor, combined with Memo’s recent outbreak gives the Jazz 3 VERY good 3-point shooters. Andrei is a great slasher, and of course the Booze Hound owns the post. Everything has clicked. The other thing the trade did was cure the locker room of the cancer who is Gordan Giricek. Kyle is a J-Slo type of guy, while Gordan was a thorn in his side. I think Jerry has benefited the most from the trade and this has had a domino effect through the players.

The Jazz are not a bad defensive team, but they seem from the outside to be good some nights and bad others. What are they doing right when things work?

The Jazz are not a bad defensive team, however they are not a good defensive team either. AK47 is not having his best year (down on blocks and steals) and he seems to be in love with going for the steal rather than squaring up on his man i.e. Jefferson getting a free lay-up with 1.2 to win the game in New Jersey. Had Andrei stuck with him, he would have settled for a difficult jump shot. Thanks AK.

Boozer is a turntable. I don’t understand why efficient offensive players have a difficult time translating that knowledge into better defensive efforts. Memo is a liability and has “paint phobia”. Ronnie Brewer started the season off as the league leader in steals and his defense has left something to be desired since December. Probably the best on the ball defender we have is Deron Williams. I think his defense is underrated. As long as he can stay in front of the smaller quicker guards, they have a difficult time trying to get through him. His size allows him to fight through a lot of screens and stay in front of his man.

The Jazz have not lost when holding their opponent under 96 points. There offense is there on a nightly basis, it’s the defense that wins the big games for them.

I am excited about tonight’s game. I wish it wasn’t on national TV though because the Jazz generally perform poorly in this situation. Deron will try at least 3 ill advised alley oops in an attempt to make Sportscenters Top 10. The Jazz should prevail at home in a close game. Final Score: Jazz 114, Lakers 108 (Kobe with at least 42).

Last time these two met: The Jazz were without Okur and Boozer, and still whipped the Lakers something fierce. Utah scored 70 points in the first half. It was ugly.

Keys To The Game: The Lakers are going to need one of their better defensive efforts of the season tonight or they may well get run out of the building. Last meeting the Lakers acted like they had never seen a back-cut or dive to the hoop and the result was a lot of lay-ups and dunks for Utah. The Lakers have to be aware of those cuts and take away the easy hoops. If the Lakers play defense closer to what they did in the first half of the Dallas game they have a chance.

That is going to start with Fisher/Farmar stepping up and containing D-Will. I wouldn’t even mind giving Sasha some time there because if he is allowed to run the show without much harassment it will be a long night.

The Lakers bench, particularly Sasha (who will likely draw the Korver assignment for long stretches) need to be aggressive. The Jazz have been getting good bench play and the Lakers need to match that.

The Lakers are going to have to score in bunches tonight, the Jazz are the second best offensive team in the association and they are going to get theirs. One place to attack the Jazz is at Okur, which means a rare offensive night from Turiaf would be a plus. Also, Radman and Odom need to pull AK-47 and Boozer away from the basket. The Jazz are fierce defenders of the paint and pack it in, the Lakers sharpshooters need to be on tonight and shoot over that. When the Lakers do go into the lane they need to draw fouls.

Where you can watch: The game is at 7:30 pm on both KCAL (9) in Los Angeles and TNT nationally. Flip between this and UCLA crushing some poor suckers just happy to be there on CBS.

I appeared on the Brothers Kamenetzky podcast today, which you can listen to over at their LA Times blog or at Now Live. We talk Dallas with Andy, who was at the game and called in from the Denver airport to tell us Marc Cuban did not stare daggers at him (and that Henry Abbot may or may not have tried to hide behind Andrew near the Dallas locker room). We also discuss what we can reasonably expect from Bynum come playoff time. This is well worth a listen, just for the joy of hearing Brian try to juggle eight kinds of technology at once.

And now a few more thoughts….

• Speaking of Bynum, I think part of what Phil was doing was playing down expectations for Bynum. Now if he does come back a few games before the playoffs he is ahead of schedule, not a month behind it. Plus, it’s a reminder that when he comes back he will not be the player he was when he went down.

As for the topic we discussed on the podcast, I think it’s impossible to say how much we need Bynum for the first round because we don’t know the matchup. Whoever we play he does not need to be a savior, just 15 minutes or so off the bench of solid defense and rebounding would be a huge boost. Andrew K reminded us how well Bynum and Farmar meshed to start the season and to rekindle that in the playoffs would be huge. Plus, the first round of the playoffs takes weeks, giving him more time to get into shape for more minutes as things go along.

• As for last night, I’ll stick with my theory that the Gasol-less Lakers are last year’s team — they played two-and-a-half quarters of good basketball and then stopped doing what had got them the win. Kobe was passing early and picking his spots in the offense, which was allowing other guys to get good shots. The Lakers played the best half of defense they have in a long time (I forgot to save it, but the Mavs offensive efficiency rating after the first half was right around 90). Then Kobe started taking more offense on and the Lakers got out of synch on that end. The misses and less tenacity on the boards allowed Dallas to get out and run a little, and the result was some good looks and easy buckets. Then, suddenly, we had a ball game.

Yup, that pretty much reminds me of the inconsistent team from last year.

• If you want to relive last night’s contest, nomuscles put up a fun and funny recap in the comments.

• I think Dallas’ heavy isolation offense really plays to the Lakers defense better than making them help on things like the pick-and-roll. Plus, Ronny had his best defensive game in a while, protecting the rim better than we have seen any Laker do since Drew went down. To have any chance against the motion and screens of the Utah offense, the Lakers will have to play 48 minutes like that Thursday.

• A number of commenters (and myself) said we needed someone other than Kobe to step up and take on some offense — Hello Vladimir! One of his best games as a Laker, both shooting well from three and putting the ball on the floor. His putting the ball on the floor early opened up some of those three chances later. He also is a better defender than his reputation. His mind seems to be elsewhere some nights, but it was in Dallas last night.

• If you are a fan of the advanced basketball stats here and want to use them (and other stuff like RPI) when filling out your NCAA pool, check out the amazing Kenpom site.

• The Final Four in my work pool, as it stands now: Kansas, UCLA, Louisville and Memphis. Personally, I’m not sold on Memphis going that far and may change that, but they are a good offensive team and their style throws some people off. But can Pitt beat them? Also, I have Clemson and Butler going farther than most. But I could probably be talked out of any of that (save Kansas, who I really like).

Actually, we can all use the help so throw your NCAA tourney thoughts in the comments.

Records: Lakers 45-21 (2 seed); Mavericks 44-23 (7 seed)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.7 (5th); Mavericks 113.2 (6th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (6th); Mavericks 107.0 (8th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radmanovic, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf
Mavericks: Jason Kidd, Josh Howard, Jerry Stackhouse, Dirk Nowitzki, Eric Dampier

Lakers Notes: Some good news from Kevin Ding over at the OC Register – Gasol is off crutches, Bynum has no swelling and Ariza is out of his boot.

And in case you are curious, here is what an anti-gravity treadmill looks like (the kind Bynum has been working out on). (Hat tip to Jeremy at Pickaxe and Roll.)

All reports are that the Lakers are keeping their heads about them during this recent run of play, which is good. Every report out of practice yesterday was about the light atmosphere. Let’s hope that the majority of the practice was spent working on defensive rotations. But I don’t think panic is a good thing.

The Mavericks Coming In: I guess I can write whatever I want about the Mavericks, Cuban isn’t going to think I know too much anyway. (By the way, Henry from True Hoop, Andrew K from the LA Times Lakers blog and the Dallas Morning News blogger that started this whole thing are all going to the game in Dallas tonight. Should be interesting.)

The Mavs come in on a five-game win streak. But before you say “they must have figured it out with Kidd” look at the opponents — New Jersey, New York, Charlotte, Indiana and Miami. If you need time to work on some things, playing the worst of the Eastern Conference is a good time to do it. Tonight, then the upcoming games against Boston and San Antonio, will tell us a lot more about just how good they are now.

One thing we do know, regardless of the opposition, Dirk is playing like an MVP again. In his last 10 he’s been scoring 26 a game shooting 55.2% (eFG%) and 51% from three, and he’s getting to the line 7.4 times per game. Plus he’s grabbing 8 boards a game.

Kidd certainly has upped the assist quotient for the Mavericks, but you can question whether Kidd’s pass first mentality has spread to the rest of the team. Kidd is averaging 10 points and 9.2 assists per game in the last 10, and the less attention he is getting from defenders has dramatically improved his shooting, especially from three — he is hitting 60% from three in the last 10, picking his spots taking 2.3 per game.

Also, Jason Terry is now coming off the bench, providing a little more scoring for the second unit of the Mavs.

Last time these two met: We can only hope this game is as entertaining as that one. The Lakers won it in overtime 108-104 behind 52 from Kobe.

Keys To The Game: Historically the Mavs have had trouble stopping Kobe, and without Pau Kobe wants to take on more of the offense anyway. Last game in the key moments the Mavs tried to stop Kobe with either Stackhouse or Kidd, and neither is really up for that task. Bottom line, should be a good night if Kobe is on your fantasy team. However, for the Lakers to win there likely will need to be some balance from someone else. Hopefully the Lakers can get Odom going early.

With Kidd at the helm the Mavericks are running more than they used to, so the Lakers need to get back in transition. One key to that is being more active on the boards — remember Dampier had 17 boards and looked like a stud last meeting, Ronny needs to outwork him and not let him control the glass.

While he is shooting better since relocating to Texas, you’d still rather force Kidd to shoot than pass. Go under the pick. Odom has traditionally done a fairly good job on Dirk and he needs to be up to that task tonight.

The bench needs to play better, particularly on defense, not letting Terry or Bass get hot.

Defensive rotations. Help the helper. Contest the shot but don’t foul. Important things the Lakers have not really done well lately, but need to tonight from the opening tip.

Oh, if the Lakers are up three late and the Mavs are going to take a last shot, foul.

Where you can watch: The game is at 5:30 pm. (Pacific) on KCAL (9) or League Pass everywhere else.

I Don’t Like Flashbacks

Kurt —  March 17, 2008

I’d like to thank the fine people at ABC for reaching into the vault and pulling out one of last season’s Lakers games for us to watch, reminding us of how frustrating it was to sit through…

Wait, that was this year’s Lakers? That’s what the injuries reduced the team to?

On a serious note, I found this morning’s LA Times Lakers report (via the hard working Mike Bresnahan) telling. In it, Lamar Odom complains that he didn’t get enough chances on the block in the Rockets game and that he could have done a lot more if he had.

He’s right — which is why he should have gotten his ass to the block rather than float around on the three-point line in the fourth quarter. He should have run the floor and set up early position before the offense and defense really set. He should have demanded the ball. Instead, we were treated to the good but passive Odom as the second option. Again. We were treated to Kobe more than willing to take on the offensive burden — good shot or not — if other guys don’t demand the rock. We got to see a lot of standing around.

It was frustrating because on the other side was a Rockets team where the role players have stepped up in the absence of a star. They are committed to defense and contest every shot. Their help defense is fantastic (hat tip to Bill Bridges in the comments). The fight for rebounds. They move on offense without the ball. They played to their strenghts and the offense looked like Adleman’s offense when it was clicking in Sacramento. The Rockets have earned that streak.

In a similar spot the Lakers seem to look to the other guy to step up. Even the vets were doing it —Rafer Alston is a good three-point shooter, so maybe Fisher should have stopped coming off him to help. Especially after the fourth three in the first quarter. That might have been a good hint he was hot (and a glance at the stats before the game would have told you he can shoot the three anyway).

What is the saving grace right now is I know that this year’s version of last year’s Lakers is going to get better as it gets healthy. This is not last year’s team, this is a team that is a contender when everybody is suited up. Bynum does fight for and get rebounds, Gasol will demand the ball, Odom will feel more comfortable with the pressure off. But yesterday’s experience was a frustrating one for fans, and the next two games could offer more of the same.

—————————————

A few other notes poached from the comments. We’ll start with Kwame a. talking about whatever that was that was supposed to be the Lakers pick-and-roll defense:

I know Farmar wasn’t playing Alston tight, but his problem was different than Fisher’s, who was unnecessarily helping, leaving his man open. Jordan was going under the screen, but there is no reason our bigs couldn’t come out and show, I think the burden is more on them. I agree with you about the momentum, but the last 3 Alston hit before the quarter ended, McGrady set a screen on Jordan, there’s no reason for Kobe not to have stepped out on the shot. I think our single biggest defensive deficiency is rotating as a team. One guy helps, the others don’t rotate, two guys trap, the defense doesn’t adjust, people let their man go back-door, there’s no help. It is truly a problem of TEAM DEFENSE, no individual can be the culprit. Houston is playing tremendous team d, everyone is on the same page, us, not so much

Trying to end on a positive note, here are some suggestions from Bill Bridges:

Things I’d like to see in the next two games:

1. Kobe on the lower left block (Pau’s usual spot). He could roll into the lane for his running hook or generally wreck havoc in the lane.

2. Pick and pop w/ Kobe/Fish/Farmar and Rad (we never run this, why?) [Kurt’s note: This is a good call I had not thought of, the Lakers had success with this the last couple years using Cook, they should try it again.]

3. Sasha at the 1 guarding the opponent’s PG. He’s our most pesky perimeter defender and the best at getting over the screen. Don’t need this for JKidd but would like to test it on Dwill.

4. Start out with Lamar on the right block and feed him 3 consecutive possessions to start the game (Like the Bulls used to do w/ Cartwright – to jump start an unagressive offensive player).

5. No double-teams on D. If Boozer or Nowitzki beat you – so be it. But don’t sag off the 3-point shooters.

6. (For the first time this season) Execute secondary rotation to help the man covering dribble penetration.

I don’t hold much hope for #6 as they try to execute this every game but mostly fail. However 1 -5 has never been tried. Why not?

Preview and Chat: Houston Rockets

Kurt —  March 16, 2008

Records: Lakers 45-20 (1 seed — tie); Rockets 45-20 (1 seed – tie)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113 (3rd); Rockets 108.1 (16th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106 (5th); Rockets 102.2 (2nd)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radmanovic, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf
Rockets: Rafer Alston, Tracy McGrady, Shane Battier, Luis Scola, Dikembe Mutombo

How the Lakers do it: Normally, with so many injuries, you’d expect a heavy dose of Kobe today. However, with the very good man defender Battier on Kobe, it’s going to take more of a team effort to get things done.

Here are the two areas I think are key for the Lakers while Gasol remains out.

1) Defense in the paint. Gasol at times provided some solid defense inside, but it never looked like his heart was really in it. Ronny Turiaf may not have the same skill level, but all of his heart is in everything he does. Remember, back in training camp Turiaf was played as a starter because he was providing toughness inside (a role Bynum ultimately filled better than Ronny could). He has to do that now, block shots and dominate on the boards. He has to play at the top of his abilities. And, when he’s not in DJ Mbenga has to do those same things. The Laker offense is going to be less potent, the defense has to get better and it starts inside. And the rebounding must improve as well, the Lakers cannot afford to give up many second chances.

2) Get back to running. Drrayeye mentioned this yesterday — since Gasol’s arrival the Lakers have slowed the pace some. Today and for the rest of the trip they need to get back to running, to getting some of the easy baskets that come in transition. Farmar will be key with the second (and at times first) units, and I’d like to see Phil go small at times and try to run that way. The Lakers are a good running team when they do it.

The Rockets Coming In: Winning 21 in a row is an amazing streak.

And for the Rockets it starts on the defensive end — this has been a very good defensive. In the last 10 games opposing teams are shooting just 43.4% (eFG%, for comparison the Lakers are 46.7%). Regular commenter here and Rockets fan Stephen posted some comments yesterday along these lines:

They are playing outstanding team defense. It all begins w/Shane Battier. His non-stop shadowing of the other team’s top scorer not only sets the tone for the team, it also allows the rest of the team to concentrate on the rest of the opposition. His hard work allows the rest to make defensive rotations on the perimeter and protect the paint. Mutombo is giving 15-20min in 2-4 stretches where he is blocking everything.

On offense, there is Tracy McGrady – he is averaging 25.6 points per game shooting 52.2% (eFG%) and getting to the line six times a game. He’s getting balanced back up from Rafer Alston, Luis Scola, the surprising Carl Landry and even double-digit points per game from Shane Battier. They have balance, a number of guys who can score, and they don’t need to score a ton with their defense.

Keys To The Game: On defense, the Lakers have to make the Rockets uncomfortable, meaning beating them to the spots they like to get the ball. You, me, Kobe, the ball boy all know McGrady prefers to get the ball on the wing, try to deny that pass. It may mean a back door or two but don’t let him get comfortable.

The Lakers defense cannot collapse into the paint today. Rockets love to shoot the three – taking 26.6 a game in the last 10 games. And they are hitting 35.7% of those attempts. Alston, Battier, Head and McGrady can all hit the three (all above 33.3% in the last 10), the Lakers defenders cannot sag off them at the three-point line.

On offense, this cannot be the Kobe show, Battier is a good defender and will lower Kobe’s efficiency. Somebody – Odom? Fisher? Radmanovic? – has to step up and take on a role of second scorer. I think Odom can have some effectiveness on Scola, and whoever has Radmanovic will be smaller than him I look to those two. There needs to be some balance to the offense today.

The Rockets have won 21 in a row in part because this is one of the hardest working teams in the NBA. They play hard for a full 48, and if the Lakers start to coast at all they will pay a steep price.

Where you can watch: The game is at 12:30 pm. (Pacific) on ABC where you pray we get Van Gundy as an announcer because he’s the only good guy they have. In LA, the game also is on KCAL (9).

Gasol Out

Kurt —  March 14, 2008

According to the Lakers web site, Gasol is out for at least the next three games. Where he will be sorely missed.

Much like the Lakers in the second half without Gasol, I’m still in a state of shock.

Records: Lakers 45-19 (1 seed); Hornets 43-20 (5 seed)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113 (3rd); Hornets 112.8 (8th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106 (5th); Hornets 106.7 (7th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radmanovic, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Hornets: Chris Paul, Mo Peterson, Peja Stojakovic, David West, Tyson Chandler

Lakers Notes: We’ve been talking about it for a while — have the Lakers been winning of late in spite of their play on defense? We’ll find out in the next four games, that’s for sure. Look at these records — the Lakers are 1.5 games ahead of the Hornets but four seeds higher. The Lakers need a solid road trip.

Recently LA Times reported that the Lakers were looking at Ira Newble as a guy who might provide some defensive depth in the playoffs. So, what kind of defender is Newble? I went to the source and asked Brian Windhorst of the Akron Beacon-Journal:

Ira was guarding bigger power forwards for much of the season, but I thought he played well with the Cavs. He’s in great shape, maybe the best of his career, and he’s got good length. He would totally be a matchup player at this point.

One little off the court note, Sunday’s game against the Rockets is now a 12:30 start and will be on ABC nationally.

A few links: Good on ya, Lance Allred.

I think the injury killed any chance of him winning the award, but the Empty the Bench puts Andrew Bynum on its list of most improved players.

If you want a Lakers desktop for your computer, here is where you go.

The Hornets Coming In: If you were wondering if the Hornets are for real, they made quite a statement crushing the Spurs two nights ago. The reasons for the questions in the first place is the Hornets have not looked like the early-season juggernaut of late, so we asked Ryan from Hornets24/7 a few questions to gain some insight (I answered a few on his site as well).

1) Since the Lakers last played the Hornets, the team’s defense has fallen from 4th in the league to 7th, giving up 3 more points per 100 possessions. What has changed to cause this? Has the offense largely been able to offset this.

There are two primary reasons for our defense falling off to its current level. First, the schedule the first two months of the season was incredibly soft, allowing the Hornets to shut down weak teams. Second, the Hornets became victims of their own success. They had a nine game win streak in January where everything was clicking. Their defense started tight, and their offense was as fluid as I’ve ever seen it. But as the streak went on, the defense relaxed, while the offense continued to flow. Then, as should be expected, the offense sputtered, and the defense wasn’t there anymore. Since then, the Hornets have slowly been getting their defense back on track again, but they have been playing a much tougher schedule, making it hard to regain the form they once had. All in all – I’d say the current ranking is probably much more accurate than the previous one. I’m not convinced the Hornets have a top 5 defense.

2) We’ve had no sightings of The Birdman yet. When will that happen, and what do the Hornets expect from him?

There are a couple things in play here. First, I’m not convinced bringing Birdman in was really Byron Scott’s preference. People forget this, but Birdman was in Byron’s doghouse in the month prior to him being banned from the league, and he just wasn’t producing anything like what he had produced the year before. Andersen was brought in for two reasons: He’s close with Chad Shinn, the Executive Officer of the Board for the Hornets(and son of the owner), and the poor play of our back up big men. He’s going to have to work even harder to get Byron to put him on the floor, because he has to prove he’s better than remembered, and get past the fact he may have been forced on Byron. That said, I will give Byron credit for his rotations. Ely and Armstrong have played very badly, and his method is to let a player play for a couple weeks. If they play terribly, he benches them and tries the next guy. Andersen will get his shot – even if it takes until the end of March for it to happen.

As for what the Hornets expect from him – all we want him to do is play 13-14 solid minutes as Chandler’s backup. That means finish lobs, rebound, and play interior defense. He is absolutely capable of that. When I analyzed his numbers it was evident that if he came back at 75% of what he was even in the year he wasn’t playing so hot, he’s still going to be an improvement over our current backups.

3) Frankly, nobody in LA is going to buy it, but give us your best pitch for why CP3 should be MVP. What has he done to step up his and the team’s performance this season.

I know Kobe or LeBron are going to win the thing. I’m fine with that, though I think CP3 has as good a claim as either of them. I’ll start by presenting his candidacy in terms of the arguments being presented for LeBron and Kobe. In a nutshell, the argument for LeBron is that his stats are the best of any player in the league, and that his supporting cast sucks and he has to do it all for his team. The arguments I see for Kobe are that his stats aren’t that far below LeBron’s and his team is having much greater success. As I see it, Paul actually falls in between the two players. Most stats analysis sites rank Paul above Kobe and lower than LeBron. Arguably, Paul has worse teammates than Kobe, and better teammates than LeBron, but the Hornets are only 1 1/2 games behind the Lakers. Essentially, he’s got the 2nd best stats of the three, and the 2nd best team success of the three, while the other two guys have a 1st and 3rd each.

His impact on his team as a whole is also on par with either. Purely on an offensive level, James is statistically responsible for 47% of his team’s production.(31 points, 7.5 assists for 46 total points out of 97 points per game) Bryant is responsible for 36%(28 points, 5.3 assists for 39 of his teams 108 points per game). Paul is responsible for 43%(21 points, 11 assists, for 43 out his teams 100 points a game) Paul does that in less minutes and with better shooting percentages than either of the other two. As an added point, despite being the primary ballhandler for the Hornets, he also garners more steals than he produces turnovers(2.7 to 2.5) – and he doesn’t do it by gambling very much. Mostly he just sticks his hand in and picks his cover clean – or intercepts the ball in the open court.

Lastly, Paul is the heart and soul of his team. He runs it, he leads it, and all the guys look and listen while he’s talking. He gets on his guys relentlessly, will correct anyone, and is as fierce a competitor as I’ve ever seen. And he’s a mean bastard. When a team puts someone on him with instructions to bump and push him, he gets downright nasty. Bruce Bowen has already been on the wrong side of altercations with him twice. Paul smacked him in the face by “accident” two games ago when Bowen was poking and slapping at him too much, and last game, Bowen ended up kneeing him during a loose ball scramble, but he was responding to Paul starting the whole tiff by sitting up and giving him a forearm shiver in the nads. The result both times? Paul got offensive fouls – and Bowen laid off of him for the rest of the games. For a generously listed 6’0″ guy, he knows how to protect himself.

4) What are the team’s and the fans playoff expectations for this season? Do they see themselves as contenders, or is this a year for learning what the playoffs are about?

The season started with the hope of reaching the playoffs as a 6th or 7th seed. Due to the Hornets success, however, it seems that the consensus is we may be contenders, and should reach the Western Conference Finals. I prefer to be more realistic. I’m thinking 2nd round, with a good showing there. Of course, being realistic allows me to glow should they get farther and still feel satisfied if they don’t.

Keys To The Game: The Lakers handled the Hornets fairly easily last meeting, and that’s because they gave Chris Paul the “Steve Nash Treatment” — let him score all he wants, just don’t let him set up his teammates. It worked, Paul had 32 points but just five assists and the Lakers cruised. Against San Antonio two nights ago Paul had 26 points and 17 assists — let him dish the ball like that and the Lakers lose.

As part of this, the Lakers need to play the pick-and-roll a lot better than they have the last couple of games. If Paul gets the kind of space to operate TJ Ford did this will be a long night for the Lakers.

The Gasol/Chandler matchup should be a good one, but I think it would be smart to use Gasol more away from the basket and pull Chandler out as well. For the Hornets, David West played very well against the Spurs and Odom is going to have to focus on the defensive end tonight.

The Lakers bench needs to step up tonight, the Hornets will throw out solid guys like Bonzi Wells, Julian Wright and Melvin Ely. That group had a nice game against the Spurs although other reports have them struggling lately.

Where you can watch: The game is at 5 pm. (Pacific) on KCAL in LA and League Pass nationally.