Archives For April 2011

With the Lakers starting their second round series against the Mavericks on Monday, we start our series preview today. In our first installment, we look at the Lakers’ offense versus the Mavericks’ defense.

The Mavericks may not be known as a defensive team, but for the season they boasted a top 10 defense measured by points per 100 possessions. They feature good length up front, solid wing defenders, and are more than willing to mix up their defensive scheme by playing zone. Two areas in which they excelled in the regular season were opponent’s FG% where they were 8th in the league allowing 45% and in their defensive rebound rate where they ranked 7th in the league. Because they weren’t a great team at forcing turnovers, they’re very reliant on getting initial stops and then securing the rebound to go the other way.

In order for the Lakers’ offense to be effective against this Mavericks’ team, they’ll need to be disciplined and play to the strengths of their individual match ups. As it is against most teams, that means attacking the Mavs inside first in order to open up other areas of the floor. If the Lakers can successfully establish the post, the Mavs will be forced to help on the block, which should then allow the perimeter players more time to shoot their jumpers while also opening up slashing lanes and angles for offensive rebounds.

And as it is against most teams, this offensive approach needs to begin with Pau Gasol. During the regular season, Pau had good success against the Mavs averaging 20 points a game on 54.5% shooting. If he’s to be as successful in the playoffs, the Lakers will need to look for him early and often and get him the ball in positions where he’s comfortable attacking. Against the Mavs, that should be easier than it was against the Hornets. Gasol will mostly be guarded by Dirk and while the big German offers good size, he’s not especially quick and isn’t a player that’s overly physical. When reviewing all of Gasol’s possessions vs. the Mavs from the regular season via Synergy Sports, a few trends immediately became clear. First is that Pau easily established position on his own, without the aid of a screen, in standard post ups just by running to his spot and calling for the ball. Pau did this in the hub of the Triangle on the strong side as well as on the weak side at both the low block and at the elbow. After establishing the post, Pau easily got off his jumper against Dirk and did so frequently against a sagging D. However, Pau was also able to both back Dirk down with good consistency and also did a very good job of turning and facing to attack off the dribble. In this series, I’d much rather Pau do the latter to make Dirk work on the defensive side of the ball. Again, Dirk will rarely body Gasol to keep him off his spots and that should allow him to get the type of position that is needed to attack with his jump hook off back downs and with his rolling hook off the bounce. If Pau is in attack mode this series, Dallas will have their hands full as they really don’t have a big man defender to bother Pau unless they shift Chandler onto him for extended possessions.

Speaking of Chandler, he’ll be the defensive key for the Mavs in this series. He is their best defensive big and is the type of long, rangy, and tenacious rim protector that makes a difference when he’s on the court. During the regular season, the Mavs saw this first hand as the Lakers scored nearly 5 points more per 100 possessions when Chandler was on the bench versus when he was on the bench according to’s Stats Cube. Chandler’s ability to not only defend the post against his primary man, but protect the rim when other Lakers went to the block or attacked the paint off the dribble was huge for them. That said, in this series, he’ll find it more difficult than ever to both those things as Andrew Bynum has taken a bigger role in the Lakers offensive sets. Plus, as Phillip details, Chandler didn’t do that great a job defending Bynum in the first place:

One thing that really stood out to me is how poorly Tyson Chandler defended Andrew Bynum. He played a lot less physical than what I remembered when I originally watched the games, as if he were playing not to foul. Bynum was able to use his big frame to get great position for his baby hook shot or drop step toward the basket for an easy layup. In the final Lakers/Mavs regular season game in particular, Bynum wasn’t just effective in scoring against Chandler/Haywood/Dirk, but his ability to score one-on-one against those guys drew a lot of defenders, so Pau ended up getting freed on the offensive glass. On two or three of Bynum’s misses, Pau was able to score off the offensive rebound. On his other miss, Pau was all alone on the back side glass, and probably would have ended up with the rebound if ‘Drew’s shot wasn’t short.

This last point of offensive rebounding is a key one due to the aforementioned fact that the Mavs are typically a good defensive rebounding team. If both Bynum and Gasol can establish the post or put pressure on the defense by attacking the paint on aggressive drives and back downs, the help will come and the back side rebounding lanes will burst open. On countless possessions that I observed during the regular season, Gasol was especially adept at just walking his man underneath the hoop or slashing to rim on the angle whenever his man gave ground to help at the rim. Direct tip ins and loose balls out of scrums under the hoop often found Gasol’s sticky mits and in this series the Lakers will look to continue to capitalize on those chances whenever they attack they attack the paint. Remember, there’s more than high-low passing and cross screen actions to big man teamwork. These guys can help each other out a lot just by being aggressive going to the rim when they have the ball.

Speaking of big men, this is also a series where Odom can play a major role. Besides Shawn Marion, the Mavs don’t really have a good option to put on Odom. And considering Marion will have a lot of defensive responsibility in this series (likely splitting his time between Artest, Kobe, and Odom) LO can have a field day working in the gaps of Dallas’ scheme in the half court by taking advantage of the attention that Kobe, Gasol, and Bynum receive. But where Odom can have his biggest impact is by grabbing defensive rebounds and pushing the ball against the retreating Dallas big men. Besides Marion, none have the foot speed to counter Odom in the open court. And with Pau/Bynum such threats on the low block, Odom will often find himself working in space as the Mavs’ big men turn and run to the paint in order to set up and protect the paint. LO should be able to run up these big men’s backs and get to his left hand to finish over the top when they’re on the retreat. Odom can also be especially dangerous anytime the Mavs go zone as his ability to find creases both at the FT line and in the shallow corner will allow him to be a playmaker in space whenever he makes the catch. After having an up and down first round, this may be the series that LO makes his imprint.

Looking beyond the big men though, the player that may have the biggest match up advantage is Kobe. As Phillip explains, the Mavs will have trouble matching up with #24 while effective dealing with his full skill set:

During the course of this series, we can end up seeing the breadth of Kobe’s offensive repertoire. During the regular season series, the Mavericks threw myriad defenders at Kobe in hopes of slowing him down. We saw DeShawn Stevenson, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry and Rodrique Beaubois all spending some time guarding Kobe, and Kobe has had some success against all of them. When he’s had smaller defenders on him (Terry, Beaubois), he’s taken them down in the post, or simply shot over the top of them off of spot up jumpers or off of screens. With bigger defenders (Marion, Stevenson, Kidd), he was more prone to start on the perimeter and attempt to beat them off the dribble in isolation situations. Stevenson might be the best individual defender on Kobe, but even he lacks the size that guys like a Shane Battier or a Nicolas Batum have, guys who have done some of the better jobs on him in recent years.

However, one of the bigger issues that the Mavericks are going to face with Kobe is the fact that, since none of those guys are really able to guard him in one-on-one situations, he has the ability to make all of the other advantages Darius mentioned about the Lakers size more glaring. If you send double teams at Kobe, that means you could end up leaving Bynum, Gasol, Odom or even Artest alone on an island. If Kobe does shoot over the double teams (which he will from time to time), it just gives the Lakers more opportunities for backside rebounds (assuming the shot misses). Maybe most troubling for the Mavs, Kobe has shown during the season series that he will take exactly what the Dallas defense is giving him – scoring well on one night (28 points in the 3rd match up) and being the facilitator in another (totaling 10 assists in the 1st match up). This diversity that Kobe offers could end up giving the Mavericks fits for however long this series lasts.

The Lakers certainly have the tools to attack an underrated Mavs defense. However, a lot of the Lakers success will depend on their ability to play smart basketball and not get caught up settling for the easy jumper but rather working the ball inside to pressure the interior of Dallas’ D. Whether it’s Gasol, Bynum, Kobe, or Ron acting on direct post ups or Odom and Kobe attacking off the dribble, the Lakers must look to play this series 15 feet and down to not only get easier looks at the basket but also force the Mavs to either foul or concede early baskets. Considering the importance of Chandler in this series, the Mavs will have difficult choices to make should both Pau and Bynum have good games in tandem as he can only guard one of them at a time. This may force the Mavs to go zone more often, but that tactic also opens them up to easier offensive rebounding chances and more slashing from Kobe and Odom working in the gaps. There are no easy answers here for the Mavs but the Lakers must make them work to not let them off the hook. If they do that, I expect the Lakers to have success and therefor force the Mavs’ offense to keep pace. As stated at the top, discipline will be the key but as the Lakers get deeper into the post-season I expect this to be less of an issue as it was early in the Hornets series.

With the Hornets vanquished and the Mavs on the horizon, we find ourselves waiting a few days before the Lakers return to action. So what better time to look forward, with nothing but time on our hands? With that, some random thoughts on what we’ve seen and learned from round one, how some of that may translate to round two, and some other thoughs on the series ahead…

*Much like the WCF vs. the Suns last season, the Hornets offered the Lakers a master’s class on pick and roll play. Unofficially, the Hornets ran their bread and butter set 150% of the time and severely tested the Lakers’ ability to cover one of the more bedeviling sets in basketball. By the end of the series the Lakers had cracked the Hornets’ code on this action, smothering Paul coming off the pick, collapsing the paint to limit big man touches, and leaving open Ariza and Belinelli to try and beat the Lakers from the wing. Both Phil and Kobe remarked post game that this allowed the Lakers to sharpen their coverage techniques with the implication being it would help them agaisnt the Mavs. While we’ll cover this in more detail in the coming days, this assertion may not actually be true. Paul and Kidd offer two different types of guards when running this set and the primary goal of the Mavs is usually to set up Dirk in isolations in pick and pop situations. Can the Lakers recover to Dirk without switching? Will there be an overcompensation to Dirk that opens up other very capable players? Only time will tell, but my mind is already trying to look at all the angles on this.

*Dallas’ bench is a much different beast than the one that the Lakers just faced. If you were to look at both the Mavs and Hornets reserves, the odds are you’d take 4 Mavericks before you even looked at the Hornets direction. Terry is one of the better bench performers in the entire league and after him Barea, Haywood, and Peja all offer more consitent play than Jack, Gray, or Willie Green. When you throw in Beaubois and Cardinal on the Mavs side, I might take the entirety of the Mavs bench before choosing anyone besides Jack from the Hornets. All of this is a long way of saying the Lakers reserves will be severely tested this series and which group plays better will likely be a major factor in who advances. If Blake, Barnes, Brown, and Odom can’t keep up with their counterparts it will throw off Phil’s rotations and create a domino effect that will be difficult to overcome. Needless to say, I’ll be watching intently when that 6-8 minute stretch from the end of the 1st quarter to the middle of hte 2nd quarter (as well as the same stretch from the end of the 3rd to the middle of the 4th) occurs every game.

*Speaking of benches, will Caron Butler be ready to play? He’s vocal about wanting to suit up and contribute but I have my doubts it will actually happen (and if it does happen that it will matter). Since that fateful season that he was a Laker, I’ve been a fan of Tuff Juice but a torn patellar tendon isn’t something folks normally effectively come back from in 5 months. We’ll see if he actually can advance past the non-contact phase of his rehab with enough time to actually play in this series, but I would think the Mavs are planning to face the Lakers without him.

*Beyond any X-factors or X’s and O’s, a major storyline of this series will be Kobe vs. Dirk. Both are undisputed Hall of Famers and while they will likely only guard each other when cross matching and defensive switches force it upon them, it’s an interesting “match up” nonetheless. Think about the top 5 to 10 players of the last 10-15 years. The names that immediately come to mind are Kobe, Duncan, Shaq, Garnett, Dirk, Kidd, Iverson and the newer age stars of Wade, LeBron, Durant, Paul, and Williams (maybe I’m missing one or two names). Besides LeBron and Wade (who have been in the East for their entire careers) and Shaq (who was a teammate of Kobe’s before going East himself), Dirk is the only guy on that list that Kobe’s never faced in the playoffs. Considering both players have been in the Western Conference for their entire careers, it’s kind of amazing that their teams have never faced off. Now, before both hang up their sneakers, we finally get to see it. As a fan of basketball, I’m excited.

*Tangential to the Kobe vs. Dirk match up is the fact that the Mavs have long been a team that Lakers fans have wanted to face in the playoffs. Maybe it’s the running “feud” between Phil and Mark Cuban, the fact that the Mavs have consistently identified the Spurs and Lakers as the teams to beat and have built their team to compete against, or that fans have always viewed the Mavs as a team that wilts in the post-season and have wanted the Lakers to inspire that in them for once. What ever the reason, that chance is now front and center. I must say, however, that this incarnation of the Mavs is one that I’ve respected since the season began. Before Dirk got hurt mid-year, the Mavs were right there with the Spurs at the top of the conference. With the addition of Marion and Chandler, they’ve gained some physical toughness while the past failures of their core players have surely added some mental toughness as well. No further proof of this is needed than how they bounced back from a crushing game 4 comeback by the Blazers to win the next two games (including a clincher on the road at the Rose Garden). They’re deep, seasoned, and hungry for more than they’ve achieved to this point. Ultimately, I don’t fear this team but I do see them as a legitimate challenger and one the Lakers will have to beat rather than just observe folding in front of them.

*Carrying those last two points one step further, there’s a definite sense of bad blood between these teams that should make this series a great one to watch as the intensity ratchets up a level from round 1. In the last Lakers/Mavs game Jason Terry pushed Steve Blake to the ground and all hell broke loose to the tune of 5 ejections and Matt Barnes getting suspended for an additional game. With a trip to the conference finals raising the stakes, I have a hard time believing the games won’t be even more sprited. Physically and mentally both sides will be tested and I’m going to enjoy seeing who rises to the challenge and who self destructs. Monday can’t get here fast enough.

[The above is a video compilation of Ron Artest’s season of muscle flexing. (h/t to The Basketball Jones)]

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: Before the game, I wrote about the need for Chris Paul not just to play well, but at a level approaching the upper edges of elite (as he was in Games 1 and 4) for the Hornets to have a chance. Fair to say he didn’t get there. For the first time in the series, the Lakers almost completely eliminated Paul as a factor. CP3 finished the first half with only one field goal, four assists, and two turnovers as the Lakers crowded him on the ball, and when he gave it up L.A. did a great job denying him opportunities to get it back. The third quarter wasn’t particularly kind, either, as Paul had more turnovers (two) than buckets (one). He’d finish with 10 points on 4-of-9 from the floor, and while he had 11 assists also turned the ball over five times, a ratio the Lakers could more than live with. All series long, Paul has been called the head of the snake. Take it off, and the whole thing dies. Thursday, the Lakers not only decapitated the slithery reptile, but turned the skin into a boots and barbecued the meat. L.A. was very strong inside, pressuring nearly everything near the bucket (six blocks), forced most of New Orleans’ possessions deep into the clock, and successfully executed their plan to keep the Hornets operating away from the paint and at mid-range.

From Joe Gerrity, Hornets 247: The Hornets season ended today in uninspiring fashion, as they fell apart early in the fourth quarter yet again against the Lakers, losing 98-80. The loss ended hope of extending what can only be described as a successful season. The crowd showed their appreciated with a late game chant of “Thank You Hornets”, well after the game was out of hand. Heading into this year it was expected that Chris Paul would leave, and that the Hornets would miss the playoffs. Once they got in it was expected that they would be just a cake-walk for the reigning champions. Instead we got to see a full season of Chris Paul, who proved that his knee injury is not as hobbling as many thought it would be. We witnessed a Hornets late season push to secure a postseason spot despite the presence of their leading scorer. Then we got to see the team take the Hornets to six games, which were all competitive for the majority.

From Dexter Fishmore, Silver Screen and Roll: In the end, there was little drama. The New Orleans Hornets fought a scrappy insurgent war against the reigning champs, but their season has concluded much as we thought it would, under the grinding boot heels of Kobe Bryant and the Laker big men. By the time the Lake Show’s 98 to 80 victory over the Hornets in Game Six wrapped up tonight, that Game One upset seemed distantly in the past, and both teams had reverted to the roles we cast for them at the outset of this series. The Lakers once again resembled a championship-caliber force. The Hornets once again looked like a team that needs a little more from Chris Paul and a whole lot more talent around him. The last couple years, in nearly every Laker playoff series, there’s come a moment when you can see the opponents’ fighting spirit seep out of them for good. The Celtics in last year’s Finals are the one exception: they never stopped battling or believing. But every other series the Lakers have played en route to their back-to-back titles has ended with an opponent bowing its head in defeat before the final buzzer sounds. Tonight that moment arrived for the Hornets some time in the third quarter.

From Ramneet Singh, Lakers Nation: The Lakers were welcomed by a hostile New Orleans crowd, and the “Beat LA” chants began well before tip-off. However, the veteran Lakers team embraced the negative slurs and used that to fuel their play. Neither team started the game strong, nor were they able to hit their open looks. The Lakers were attacking the paint, but they failed to convert when getting close to the rim. Kobe Bryant took more of a facilitator role in the opening stages of the quarter, and he looked to give the big men the ball down low. The Lakers started the game missing six of the first eight shots and at the 7:22 mark of the first; Los Angeles trailed 8-6.

From Rohan, At The Hive: In a few days, we’ll look back on this series in a largely positive manner. I’m sure of it . That the Hornets took the L.A. Lakers to six games is remarkable in and of itself. But it doesn’t change the fact that this concluding game marked a return to those things we grew to so vociferously despise over these last five months. Chris Paul’s passivity. The almost hilarious absence of perimeter shooting. Mis-evaluation of bench players. Those three things, probably more than anything else, define the 2010-2011 Hornets. And they most certainly defined them in their obliteration at the hands of Los Angeles. It feels strange to criticize Chris Paul after the series he’s had, but Paul absolutely failed to show up in the first half. It’s one thing to have an off half (which, quite frankly, is an apt description of Paul’s second half anyway). It’s quite another to not only not shoot the basketball, but to literally avoid the ball entirely for possessions at a time. Where the national audience may have been somewhat shocked, we could do no more than sigh knowingly. It’s true that Los Angeles pulled away in the third quarter, but the number of opportunities New Orleans left on the floor in the first half thanks to CP3’s vanishing act was staggering.

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: The Lakers are called soft but unquestionably are getting harder with Andrew Bynum doing his new thing. They have a killer instinct that starts with Kobe Bryant and wafts through the entire locker room, as seen by another close-out Thursday night that had Derek Fisher saying with satisfaction: “We smelled an opportunity to finish it out.” But what isn’t much talked about but is a precious commodity in this budding dynasty is that they are pretty smart guys. Bryant, Fisher, Bynum, Pau Gasol … all unquestionably smarter than your average NBAer. Obviously Phil Jackson. Ron Artest is actually sort of a defensive-basketball mad genius, too. That is actually part of the killer instinct: learning over the course of a series how to kill. It wasn’t Bryant’s tide-turning dunk that Fisher was raving about after the Lakers’ Game 5 victory. It was that Bryant, wobbly on that sprained left ankle, playing calculatingly and not crazy: “When to attack, when to move the ball,” Fisher said, “he played a really smart game.”

From Mark Medina, LA Times: The Lakers’ makeup doesn’t make practice time ripe in preparing for the pick-and-roll offense no matter what they do. Sure they can dissect film, mimic opposing team’s tendencies and run pick-and-roll sequences until it’s drilled into their heads. But part of the practice time also entails running the triangle offense, which operates without the traditional point guard and stresses off-ball movement and balanced spacing. Add the Lakers’ veteran-laden roster, and it becomes the main area to try to exploit against them, a dicey scenario when they matched up with the New Orleans Hornets in the first round. But if the Lakers’ 98-80 Game 6 victory Thursday over New Orleans taught us anything besides the fact the defending champs survived their first-round series in six games and face the winner of Portland-Dallas in the West semifinals at Staples Center on Monday, it’s that the matchup featured an evolution in how they guarded the pick-and-roll and eventually succeeded. “It’s been our weakness in the past,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson told reporters in New Orleans. “We learned a lot about it in the series and we got better.”

Below is the TV Schedule for the Lakers’ second round series with Dallas:

Game 1 – Mon May 2 Dallas at L.A. Lakers 7:30PM TNT
Game 2 – Wed May 4 Dallas at L.A. Lakers 7:30PM  TNT
Game 3 – Fri May 6 L.A. Lakers at Dallas 6:30PM  ESPN
Game 4 – Sun May 8 L.A. Lakers at Dallas 12:30PM  ABC/R
Game 5 * Tue May 10 Dallas at L.A. Lakers TBD TBD TNT
Game 6 * Thu May 12 L.A. Lakers at Dallas TBD TBD ESPN
Game 7 * Sun May 15 Dallas at L.A. Lakers 12:30PM 3:30PM ABC
*If Necessary

In Darius’ Preview and Chat, he opened up with a discussion on how difficult it is to close out teams on the road in the playoffs, and brought up this comment from The Dude Abides:

The Lakers of the Pau Gasol era are 7-1 in road closeout games, including the last five in a row. The only loss was Game 6 of the 2009 2nd Round in Houston. Since then, they won Game 6 in Denver, Game 5 in Orlando, Game 6 in OKC, Game 4 in Utah, and Game 6 in Phoenix.

After tonight’s 98-80 victory, the Lakers can add the New Orleans Hornets to the list of teams that the Lakers effectively closed out on the road during the current Kobe/Pau administration. And much like the majority of the aforementioned games, the Lakers won tonight’s game on the strength of their defense. Only allowing 80 points to a Chris Paul led offense is fantastic, but it still doesn’t really tell the story of how dominant the Laker defense was tonight. With Paul, they consistently cut off his penetrating and passing lanes, kept all of the Hornets off of the offensive glass, and made them a collective team of jump shooters. Take a look at the Hornets’ shot chart and the number of mid-range jumpers that they were forced to take.

shot chart

Without anyone knocking down shots for the Hornets, it became increasingly easier for the Lakers to defend Paul, who easily had his quietest game of the series with 10 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. The Lakers bigs did a great job of hedging high enough to prevent Paul from driving, but stayed far enough away so that Paul wouldn’t blow by them. The Lakers perimeter defenders did a great job of fighting over screens with enough speed so that that Pau and Bynum spent as little time as possible isolated on Chris Paul. Kobe mentioned that he looked tired in his post-game presser, and a lot of his fatigue might have come with the fact that Paul saw five different defenders during the course of the game. Fisher, Blake, Kobe, Artest, and Brown all spent at least a few possessions on Paul.

On the offensive end, the Lakers got great production from their big men. 48 points, 28 rebounds, eight assists, and four blocks from Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. Bynum had a spectacular night on his own with 18 points and 12 rebounds, with eight of his rebounds coming on the offensive end. ‘Drew has been consistently knocking down a 15-footer, and his post game is looking more refined daily. He’s been playing as comfortable on the floor as we’ve seen him since early in the 2008 season before his knee injury. Pau’s jumper was falling as well, and he effectively attacked the rim when he had favorable matchups against Aaron Gray and DJ Mbenga. Lamar Odom might have had the quietest 14 points as a Laker. Save for a couple of swooping layups, it’s hard to remember many of his points.

On the perimeter, Kobe had a fantastic third quarter, scoring 13 of his 24 in that 12-minute stretch. His shot wasn’t falling at a high rate, so he compensated for his off shot by attacking the rim, finishing 10-for-10 from the free throw line. We also need to give some credit to Ron Artest, who might have only had four points, but he provided five rebounds, five assists, one steal and one of his signature bicep flexes after his steal on Chris Paul and the subsequent put back. Artest also had the assist to Kobe’s three in the third that moved the Lakers lead back up from seven to 10 points, and really took the crowd out of the game.

Overall, the Lakers played a fantastic game on both ends of the floor. They swarmed the Hornets on the defensive end and played inside-out on the offensive end. New Orleans played admirably. They were undersized, undermanned, and were underdogs in every respect, but they were scrappy enough to make this an interesting series. Chris Paul was outstanding and I was thoroughly impressed with rookie coach Monty Williams’ ability to game plan for a Phil Jackson led Lakers. They had a great season considering their injury issues and their expectations coming into the game. As far as the next round goes, Dallas is up on Portland by nine points  close to midway through the third quarter. A Dallas win would end this series and move them forward to see the Lakers in the second round. A Portland win would send the series to a decisive seventh game. Either way, the Lakers’ next game will be this Monday.

They say closing out a team is the hardest win to get in a series. This is even more true on the road. So, it speaks volumes that the Lakers have been quite good at this in the past three years. As The Dude Abides mentioned in the comments:

The Lakers of the Pau Gasol era are 7-1 in road closeout games, including the last five in a row. The only loss was Game 6 of the 2009 2nd Round in Houston. Since then, they won Game 6 in Denver, Game 5 in Orlando, Game 6 in OKC, Game 4 in Utah, and Game 6 in Phoenix.

Tonight, the Lakers will look to make that record 8-1 and prepare for round 2 by getting the win tonight.

By this point, there are no more secrets in this series. The Lakers know what they need to. Physical defense on Chris Paul is a must. Finshing defensive possessions with rebounds is also a necessity. Combine those things with smart, inside/out offense and the Lakers will score enough points to win the game. And that will be that.

But understand that all of this will need to come in the the sports version of a lion’s den where the home crowd will be as loud as they can be and the players will feed off it. Also note that the Hornets will likely try to be as physical as they can be (Monty Williams, Chris Paul, and the Hornets big men all brought up the Lakers’ physical play after game 5) to try and disrupt the Lakers’ sets on both sides of the ball. This means that the Laker big men – especially Gasol and Odom – will need to play through the bumps, shoves, and grabs that come with this type of approach. The Lakers can not expect to be bailed out by the whistle or complain to the refs if something doesn’t go their way. The key to winning this game will lie in the mental strength brought to the table as much as the physical strength.

But in the end, execution will be king. The way to discourage the crowd in the stands and the opposition on the court is to play out both offensive and defensive schemes at their highest level. Pound the Hornets inside on one end and limit Chris Paul on the other. Make Ariza prove that he can continue to bury the long jumper while forcing Landry to either shoot his 18 footer or finish in the paint over size (no easy buckets!). Space the floor on offense and have the bench bring pressure defense and a renewed pace to the game.

Let the crowd know early who the better team is and take them out of the game. Make this contest less about emotion and more about the talent that’s on the floor. In any given game the emotion of the fans can carry a team to victory. The Lakers need to remove that variable from the equation and end this series now. As confident as the Lakers would be in a game 7, I don’t think they want to test their luck with Chris Paul’s potential to summon a game for the ages on Saturday night.

If LA brings the effort and focuses on doing what they need to do, this won’t be an issue. But if the Lakers let Paul get going early, allow the Hornet’s big men to grab extra rebounds, or they settle for long jumpers and ignore Gasol and Bynum on the block, both teams will be flying to Los Angeles after this game. Here’s to the Lakers landing at LAX by themselves.

Where you can watch: 5pm start time on KCAL locally and TNT nationally.

From Dave McMenamin, ESPNLA: If we learned anything in the two days leading up to the Lakers’ commanding 106-90 Game 5 win over the New Orleans Hornets on Tuesday, it’s that people still don’t trust Kobe Bryant. What more does the guy have to do? Following Bryant’s balking at getting X-rays or an MRI exam on his left-ankle sprain from late in Game 4, a hoard of armchair doctors took to the talk-radio waves and their Twitter feeds to diagnose his injury. They called for him to drop the tough-guy act and warned he could be causing further damage down the road. It was too big a risk for the first round against New Orleans, fans cried. What if it were worse than a sprain, like a hairline fracture or even a break? Now, after Bryant dropped a team-high 19 points in 28 minutes and threw in one of the most highlight-worthy dunks of his “SportsCenter” Top 10-laden career, the only question is: What will he do for an encore?

From Gary Lee, Lakers Nation: Last night, in a pivotal game 5 vs. the New Orleans Hornets, the world wondered aloud if they were seeing the decline of Kobe Bryant. They wondered if his body was starting to break down and if he was able to fight off Father time for another night to pull the Lakers through to victory. Well, as we saw with his tide-turning dunk over Emeka Okafor, Kobe Bryant not only fought off Father time, but crossed him over and made him fall to his knees in amazement. Watching that dunk, a number of our twitter followers were talking about how they haven’t seen that version of Kobe since his afro days, so we thought we’d take a look back at those “Afro” days with a collection of videos we found on YouTube of Top 10 Plays from his first 4 years as well as some of the best commercials Kobe filmed during that time.

Eric Koreen, Posted SportsIn December, a group of Toronto artists mounted a Ron Artest-themed exhibition. Shockingly, considering Artest’s history of complete randomness, the Los Angeles Lakers star made an appearance, the night before his team played the Raptors. Artest was not going to attend originally. “At first I thought it was something bad. I thought it was [someone trying to be] funny. I thought it was someone making jokes,” he said. “I’ve been doing so many [good] things, and then it’s like, ‘Oh man, I can’t do anything good without somebody doing something bad, trying to bring down my name.’ I was a little bit disturbed, just by the name of the title [of the exhibit], ‘Lovable Badass’, right?”

From Emile Avanessian, Hardwood Hype: Whatever your reason for tuning in- escapist entertainment, civic pride, gambling interests, whatever- the greatest moments in the sports-viewing life of any fan are those that unfold when the spectacular and the unexpected converge. Last night in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant, author of countless such moments, made his latest deposit into our memory bank. Having relied less on athleticism this season than in any of the previous 14, and playing on a left ankle that he’d sprained exactly six weeks prior in Dallas and rolled again in the Lakers’ Game 4 loss in New Orleans, Kobe was not expected to conjure up images of a mini-fro and a #8 jersey on Tuesday night. It’s a good thing no one bothered to inform Kobe.

From LSU Hornet, At The Hive: This is the first thing I’m writing since the start of the playoffs, and even now I am writing more as a fan than an analyst, journalist, or anything else someone might mistake me for. As soon as we were matched up with the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, I decided to throw rationality out of the window and go into the series as purely a fan of the team. I knew that almost everyone did not expect much out of this team, with the most optimistic outlooks only calling for a “gentleman’s sweep” in favor of the defending champs. Even in our own Writer’s Roundtable, not one of us mentioned the possibility of winning the series.

From Scott Howard-Cooper, It was nasty. A mighty collision of wills at the rim, and doctors will be removing pieces of Kobe Bryant from Emeka Okafor’s posterized face for days. There could even be some basketball-leather shrapnel. It was just nasty. Oh, the other injury. Yeah, never mind. Bryant played 29 minutes on the sprained left ankle that forced him to hobble out of New Orleans Arena on crutches two nights earlier and required nonstop treatment to get him ready for Tuesday at Staples Center. He had a team-high 19 points, making eight of 13 shots. Bryant didn’t just heal. He got into the way-back machine. He saw a lane to the basket from the perimeter, then he saw Okafor coming to defend, and then he performed like Kobe of old (and not old as in last weekend, when health wasn’t giving the Lakers something to worry other than the Hornets). “It looked like he was going to challenge me at the rim,” Bryant said. “I accepted the challenge.”

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: The Lakers just enjoyed one of the trickle-down bonuses of Kobe Bryant’s drive. He plays hurt, he plays well, and he inspires his team to rally around him. It dates all the way back to his first championship in 2000, when he played on a sprained left ankle (sound familiar?) after sitting out a Game 3 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Shaquille O’Neal fouled out in overtime of Game 4, and Bryant carried the Lakers to the finish of that game with a performance that O’Neal even admitted he re-watched on video that summer as a pure fan. From Bryant’s oak tree, there grows another firm branch, though – one the Lakers hope to climb out on Thursday night against the Hornets. Bryant’s killer instinct is unique, too.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: After converting on a right hook, Lakers forward Pau Gasol pumped his fist. After converting on an inside lob, Lakers center Andrew Bynum flexed his muscles. And after the Hornets surprisingly owned the advantage inside for most of the series, both Gasol and Bynum finally fought back with increased aggressiveness. The Lakers’ 106-90 Game 5 victory Tuesday over the New Orleans Hornets assuaged concerns for reasons besides retaking control of the series and Kobe Bryant still managing to play through pain with a sprained left ankle. It took four games longer than it should have, but Game 5 also featured the Lakers finally showcasing their superior size advantage against the Hornets in a physical nature, a quality not usually attached to the defending champions. “We should play like that all the time,” Gasol said after posting 16 points on six-of-12 shooting, eight rebounds and three blocks. “[Game 5] was a game we needed to play physical, control the boards and use our bodies.”

From Mark Medina, LA Times: In a wave of nostalgia, Lakers forward Ron Artest poured out his emotions, unmasked his vulnerabilities and inspired a group of policymakers and fans alike. All it took was a few sentences thanking his psychologist after his Game 7 heroics in the 2010 NBA Finals to set the hook: “She really helped me relax so much. Thank you so much. It was so difficult to play when there’s so much emotion going on in the playoffs. She helped me so much.” It turns out Artest’s plug helped others. It wasn’t too long after that memorable postgame interview that the office of Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk) contacted Artest’s publicist, Heidi Buech, to see if Artest was interested in speaking out on mental health issues. Before Artest knew it, he was visiting schools, testifying before Congress on behalf of the Mental Health in Schools Act, appearing in a public service announcement with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and raffling off his own championship ring for $651,006 for various mental health charities. Artest plans to distribute the money after the playoffs end.

Last night’s game 5 may have been the best game the Lakers have played in this young post season. No one player was that great, but the cumulative production that the players produced made for a great win. With 6 Lakers scoring double figures and the bench players bringing a spark with their energy and hustle on both ends, every player that saw game action contributed positively. In a 16 point win it’s not rare to have every player with a positive plus/minus, but the Lakers are one team where that’s often not true. Often times, even in blowout wins, the bench unit gets outplayed and there’s a player or two that are -4 or -6 on the night. Or, there’s a starter that had a couple of particularly poor stretches and he ends up on the negative end at the game’s conclusion. Last night, even if it was only a +2, every Laker had a positive plus minus. I know it’s not an end all stat, but it does show that every Laker was able to contribute to helping the team win in the minutes he played.

A few other thoughts from game 5 and the rest of the series…

  • After the game, everyone had an opinion on Kobe’s ankle injury. Most of the Hornets players (plus coach Monty Williams) said that Kobe really wasn’t that hurt, essentially saying “did he look hurt out there?”. And while Kobe was surely good enough to play, I thought he was noticeably moving gingerly early in the game and later on you could tell he didn’t have a lot of burst when moving off the ball. Plus, on defense, he didn’t have any quickness when trying to move laterally to keep up with guys off the dribble. Several times even Belinelli went right by him off the dribble when Kobe tried to close out.
  • As for the dunks he threw down being evidence that Kobe’s not hurt, go back and review them. Notice that neither of his dunks came off his bum left leg. The Okafor dunk was a two footed takeoff and on the left hander he tossed in over Landry, Kobe jumped off his right leg. Neither required a lot of lift from his bad leg. Even when Kobe was driving he was pushing off his right leg a lot (something he does frequently anyway). Basically, I thought Kobe compensated for his injury well but that the plays he made last night don’t really erase the fact that he’s pretty banged up.
  • After game 2, I mentioned that the Lakers needed to help Pau help the team by setting more screens for him and not ask him to simply back his man down to get post position. I acknowledged that Pau did need to work harder to be effective, but the solution to his problems didn’t lie just with Gasol himself. In game 5, we saw improvement in both aspects. The Lakers ran several center opposite sets for Pau, setting cross screens for him to make the catch coming to the strong side (his 2nd basket of the game came on this set). Pau also got in a lower stance when posting up and that allowed him to better back down Landry on several plays that set up his jump hook and turnaround jumper. It only took 5 games for this to happen, but better late than never.
  • Is it just me, or does Trevor Ariza look like the 2009 version of himself? He’s canning open jumpers, driving to the cup hard, and finishing acrobatically over big men challenging. Yesterday on twitter someone (I can’t recall who) commented that Ariza was obviously so bad the last two regular seasons because those games weren’t in the playoffs. It came off as mostly a joke, but Ariza does seem a like a guy that raises his game in the post-season. All I can say is, good for him. After all, stepping up in the post-season helped earn our guys some hardware.
  • Since I brought up Ariza, it’s only fair to bring up Artest too. He’s having himself an excellent series and last night’s effort was no exception. For a good take on what Ron’s done so far these playoffs, go read this. It’s worth your time.
  • Last night Jarrett Jack was 0-3 from the field and scored 1 point. He also had 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and 3 turnovers. Surely the Hornets need more from him than this if they expect to win.  Since he went 5-6 for 15 points in game 1, Jack is a combined 4-21 with only 14 points total (though, to be fair, he also hit a big jumper in the closing seconds of game 4 that ultimately clinched that win). And while this may just be coincidence, Jack’s decline coincides with Steve Blake’s return from the chicken pox.
  • Lastly, is it just me or is this Hornets team hard to hate? Every playoffs I find myself utterly disliking the opposing team. Last year, even the Thunder brought it out of me with Durant’s arm sweep to draw fouls, Westbrook’s screams after a big play, and Thabo’s defense (and I generally like those guys a lot). This year though, I just can’t bring myself to those levels with the Hornets. Sure Landry upsets me at times but that’s about it. Chris Paul has been brilliant, Okafor has been stoic and classy (even after getting raked in the face by Kobe last night), and their head coach has been nothing but professional the entire time. Maybe I’m alone here but I’d like to see this team win if they weren’t facing the Lakers.

From Andy Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: I’ll say this for Kobe, the man doesn’t just play while hurt. He throws all possible caution to the wind when it comes to logical approaches in this state. First, he refuses to get an MRI on his injured ankle like any sane person whose body is their temple would do. From there, it’s not about limping all game to lend a complimentary helping hand, as many (myself included) felt would be the case. Instead, Bryant mustered as much or more aggression as he would on his teenage ankles. The lane was attacked — often to great effect — and he offered some of his most electric elevation since that time he introduced his midsection to Steve Nash’s face. By any sensible measure, the approach doesn’t hold up to sound reason. But guess what? It worked.

From Dave McMenamin, ESPNLA: If we learned anything in the two days leading up to the Lakers’ commanding 106-90 Game 5 win over the New Orleans Hornets on Tuesday, it’s that people still don’t trust Kobe Bryant. They called for him to drop the tough-guy act and warned he could be causing further damage down the road. It was too big a risk for the first round against New Orleans, fans cried. What if it were worse than a sprain, like a hairline fracture or even a break? Now, after Bryant dropped a team-high 19 points in 28 minutes and threw in one of the most highlight-worthy dunks of his “SportsCenter” Top 10-laden career, the only question is: What will he do for an encore?

From J.A. Adande, Daily Dime: Guess there was no need for Kobe Bryant to get an X-ray or MRI on his sprained left ankle. You could’ve asked Emeka Okafor or Carl Landry or any other member of the Hornets and they’d say it checked out fine. Talk about resonance. The waves from Bryant’s soaring dunk over Okafor in the second quarter could be felt all over Staples Center. The crowd went from nervous quiet to energized roar. Bryant came back with a layup to erase the Hornets’ last lead of the game, and the Lakers were on their way to their most convincing victory of this first-round series, 106-90, to put them up 3-2. “All this talk about his ankle,” Hornets coach Monty Williams said. “Did it look like his ankle was hurting? OK then.”

From Ryan Schwan, Hornets247: Yes, the turnovers hurt pretty bad, but the real story of that game was the Lakers simple dominance on the glass. The Hornets couldn’t get an offensive rebound to save their lives, and the Lakers either out-muscled or out-reached the Hornets for multiple second chance points. With the Hornets already struggling defensively, their inability to keep the Lakers one and done on the shots they did miss was killer. Honestly, I was hoping for a little more Aaron Gray in there as the Hornets struggled mightily inside.  In the end, the Lakers outrebounded the Hornets by 17, and more importantly, had 15 offensive rebounds to the Hornets 3.

From Eddie Maisonet, Ed The Sports Fan: Chukwuemeka Ndubuisi Okafor, also known as Emeka Okafor, 28, was born on September 28, 1982 in Houston, Texas. Okafor was laid to rest on Tuesday, April 26th, 2011 after an apparent murder in the first degree at the rim by Kobe Bean Bryant. Emeka is most notably known for being the #2 pick in the 2004 NBA draft, just behind one Dwight Howard. The pallbearers for Okafor’s burial will be his four teammates in the starting lineup: Chris Paul, Willie Green from Detroit, Trevor Ariza and Carl Landry. A special scholarship has been created in honor of Emeka for “valor in stupidity in the lane by centers in the 2004 draft” to honor those who have fallen to one Kobe Bryant.

From Dexter Fishmore, Silver Screen and Roll: Every once in a while, the easy story is actually the correct story. It sounds overly pat, but trust me, it really happened like this: for most of the first half tonight, the Lakers struggled to get a handle on Game Five of their series against the New Orleans Hornets. They were a step slow, and if we’re being honest, looked a little nervous. With just a few minutes to go before the break, they trailed by four. At that point Kobe Bryant, who needed crutches to leave New Orleans Arena on Sunday and who refused an MRI on his injured ankle, brought the basketball world to its feet with a majestic, swooping dunk over Emeka Okafor. His lightning strike defibrillated the Lakers and changed the energy of the game. Jolted to life by the Mamba, the champs became the aggressors. They turned the dial up on defense and took the battle into the paint, where they overwhelmed the Hornets and won going away, 106 to 90.

From Hannah Bradley, Lakers Nation: The advisement to get an MRI or x–ray is something no one wants to face in his or her lifetime, especially as a professional athlete. Whether you’re playing pick up games at the YMCA or in the first round of the NBA playoffs, the thought of an injury is hard to come to terms with. With this said, when looking at most players they will accept the injury; take a seat on the bench and cheer on their team, hoping for the best. Kobe Bryant isn’t that kind of player. The five-time NBA champion sprained his left ankle in the closing minutes of Game 4 against the Hornets Sunday, forcing Lakers Nation to cross their fingers yet again. In the days leading up to Game 5, Kobe has been receiving moderate care, including icing, electrostimulation and massage. He refused to get either an MRI or a x-ray, much to the dismay of the Lakers front office.

From Johnny Ludden, Yahoo! Sports: The lane opened, and so did Kobe Bryant’s eyes. In that flash of an instant, Bryant’s warped ankle no longer felt stiff. His legs felt alive. He took one hard dribble and exploded up. Emeka Okaor, the New Orleans Hornets center, jumped too. Bryant cocked the ball with his right hand as if it were a hammer held above his head, and … well, this did not end gently for Mr. Okafor. These are the moments when an NBA season can turn, and Kobe knew as much. This game, this series – maybe even these entire playoffs – became his again. Shannon Brown would later joke that the last time he had seen such a ferocious dunk, Kobe had an Afro. Brown and the rest of these Los Angeles Lakers saw the fury in Kobe’s eyes, and they understood.

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: Kobe Bryant stormed down the lane, rose into the air and stayed there above 6-foot-10 Emeka Okafor before dropping a hammer dunk that shook the very foundation of Staples Center. The force of the slam fired up the Lakers late in the first half en route to their 106-90 tiebreaking Game 5 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Tuesday night. The Lakers have won the past 16 series in which they won Game 5 of tied series. Bryant, playing on a sprained left ankle that had Lakers fans panicky in recent days, was quiet in the early going while the Hornets took a nine-point lead early in the second quarter. But Bryant’s dunk 3:31 before halftime energized his team and his town. He had been unhappy with a continuation basket allowed by referees at the other end after his foul on Trevor Ariza, giving New Orleans a 44-40 lead. So Bryant got the ball from Pau Gasol near the free-throw line and drove right into and over Okafor before staring at his nearby bench to finish the statement.

From Vincent Bonsingore, LA Daily News: Magic Johnson stood in a dark hallway at Staples Center Tuesday flashing his famous smile and trying to put Lakers fans at ease. A lot of good it was doing for Lakers Nation. In a little over an hour Kobe Bryant would take the floor against the New Orleans Hornets in Game 5 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, and for the first time in two days the Lakers, their fans and the world would finally see how well his sprained left ankle was holding up. Or not. The tension was real, the Lakers knotted in a 2-2 tie with the surprising Hornets and needing a victory to regain control of the series.