Coming into this afternoon’s game, no one was really willing to give the New Orleans Hornets a puncher’s chance in upsetting the Lakers in this first round playoff series. The Lakers swept the Hornets in their season series, with the Hornets’s biggest lead in any of the games was a mere four points. But as the Lakers have proven for the last two seasons, the post season can bring out the best in teams, and more specifically, individual players. New Orleans’ Chris Paul proved that the Lakers are going to have to beat this Hornets team, with a 33 point and 14 assist outing, the Paul-led Hornets will not be giving any games away in this series.
Paul got things going early for the Hornets, finishing the first quarter with eight assists. As expected, the Hornets ran a lot of pick and roll sets in this game, and the Lakers defended them poorly. As we’ve seen during the regular season meetings, the Lakers attempted to defend the Hornets P&R sets by going over screens and forcing Paul to make jump shots over the Lakers bigs, or forcing him to get the ball out of his hands. Today, Paul made a simple adjustment and kept the Lakers on their heels the whole night: he refused to pick up his dribble until he had a play he was comfortable making. With Paul holding on to his dribble, he often extended himself away from the screener, forcing the Lakers to switch on multiple occasions. Over and over again, we saw Chris Paul in one-on-one situations with Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum, putting the Lakers in compromising situations, with the compromise usually coming at the expense of the scoreboard. If Paul wasn’t scoring, he was drawing fouls on whoever was around to reach.
The fourth quarter was a very telling indication that, as well as Paul played, the Hornets’ win was definitely a team effort. With Paul sitting to start the fourth and the Lakers only down one after a fantastic third quarter, it was easy to expect the Lakers to make a run; but Jarret Jack stepped in and immediately started making plays. He came off of a P&R with Aaron Gray and drew a shooting foul on Shannon Brown (knocked down both FTs). A few possessions later, the Hornets ran another high P&R for Jack. Lamar hedged on the screen 35-feet away from the basket and Jack was able to easily split the defenders and hit a little floater in the lane. On the very next possession (you guessed it), the Hornets ran another P&R, this time on the right wing with screeners on both sides (Gray and Bellineli). Jack went right, Matt Barnes switched onto him and gave up the baseline. Lamar Odom slid over to protect the rim on the right block, but it left the lane wide open for a cutting Willie Green (Shannon Brown was completely turned away from him). Green hit a floater over Bynum and Barnes and drew the foul.
What doesn’t seem like much — the Hornets lead being extended from one to five — ended up proving to be huge as Chris Paul was able to come in and close out the game for the Hornets. And close he did. With the P&R working so well for the Hornets, they went right back to their bread and butter with Paul in the game. He drew a foul on Fish by slowing down after taking an Aaron Gray screen and letting Fish pretty much ride him from behind until he heard a whistle and threw up a shot. Took an Okafor screen on another play and fed a Carl Landry sitting behind the Lakers’ defense with a beautiful pass which drew another foul and more free throws.
Then, on back to back plays, Chris Paul was able to create one-on-one situations with Pau Gasol. On the first, he took Gasol to the top of the key, gave him a few moves to get him off balanced and hit a jumper. On the second, he just came off of the screen, took an extra dribble to gather himself, and took a jumper falling down over Gasol’s outstretched arms. Money. From that point, Chris Paul would only go on to score 11 more points and record one more assist. Suffice to say, it was nothing short of a brilliant performance.
On the other side, Kobe had one of his most efficient games in recent weeks, but his 34 points on 13 for 26 shooting performance wasn’t enough. Pau struggled for most of the night. He only recorded eight points and six rebounds on two for nine shooting. More troubling was his lackluster performance on the defensive end of the floor. More than once, he was beat off of the dribble and failed to make timely rotations to keep Chris Paul and co. from getting easy baskets near the rim. Looking at the Hornets’ shot chart shows that the Lakers in general had trouble keeping the Hornets out of the paint, but during that 17-1 run after the all-star break, those were shots that were either contested or not taken at all.
Looking forward, this is a game that saw a remarkable individual performance from one of the league’s elite point guards, and even with the way Paul performed, the Lakers weren’t totally out of the game until the final two minutes of regulation. Also, the Hornets will be holding their collective breaths as they await the status of backup center Aaron Gray, who played admirably in place of Emeka Okafor, who spent a large chunk of the game in foul trouble. The Lakers are going to need a whole lot more from Pau in future games if they’re going to win some games against this Hornets team and they’re going to need to do a better job on Chris Paul. It’s nearly impossible to completely stop such a great point guard, but there are a few things that the Lakers need to tinker on the defensive end of the floor to limit his effectiveness (which we’ll be getting deeper into as we get closer to Game 2). The Lakers are still 16 wins away from a 3-peat, hopefully this afternoon served as a wakeup call for a team that hasn’t played well at all in the past two weeks.