When it comes to the playoffs the most important game is the next one. As a series evolves each game becomes the most meaningful for each team as the stakes get raised and elimination is one step closer. Game 3 is no different as it offers both teams an opportunity to take control of this series. For the Hornets this game can put the Lakers on their heels again and give them the leg up with a 2-1 series lead and a crucial game 4 on their home court on Sunday. For the Lakers, this game is the chance to put the series right back in their hands by seizing home court advantage back and continuing the momentum they established in game 2.
In order to capture this all important swing game, some keys I’ll be looking for:
*Sustained effort. If the Lakers had any thoughts about this series being a walk they were quickly erased after getting steamrolled by Chris Paul and crew in game 1. The difficulty this match up poses was only reinforced after a hard fought, physical game 2. In order to win that game, the Lakers needed to play hard the entire game, pushing through rough patches and holding off a feisty Hornets group that made several mini-runs that had the game too close for comfort for most of the 48 minutes. Tonight, the Lakers must bring an even more focused approach and energy to win on the road. The Hornets and their crowd will be bursting with energy and ready to run through brick walls to win this game. The Lakers will need to match that early energy and keep the game close – or better yet take that energy away by starting out fast themselves. This group is experienced in such games and understand the stakes, so I expect them to be prepared. That said, a road environment in the playoffs has the potential to knock even the most poised team off stride. The Lakers will need to dig in their heels, take that initial hit, and then hit back with a sustained effort of their own to pull this game out.
*Defense by committee. In game 2 the Lakers’ better execution of their defensive scheme had a big part in limiting Chris Paul’s success. But another key in (relatively) containing Paul was the fact that the Lakers threw multiple primary defenders at Paul to consistently keep a fresh body on him while also giving him different styles of defense to deal with. Kobe, Fisher, Blake, and Artest all took turns on Paul and in game 3 I expect a similar approach. It will be interesting to see how many minutes Kobe spends chasing Paul over and around screens and denying him off the ball as the energy expended on that side of the ball takes its toll when trying to be effective on the other side, but I do expect to see Kobe strategically play the Hornets’ best player (and really, the best player – so far – in this series) to try and take him out of this game. I also expect to see Blake get more chances on Paul to see if he can duplicate the success he had in game 2. If New Orleans goes to a small line up with a Paul/Jarrett Jack back court, I don’t doubt that we could see Blake/Fisher or Blake/Kobe for extended minutes to match that unit to give Steve his shot. All that said, it will still take a team effort to slow down CP3. The Lakers bigs must stay true to their principles by taking the right angles and not haphazardly give up space to allow Paul to probe his way to the painted area. Bynum, Gasol, and Odom must all be prepared to pounce on drives into the lane and contest the short shots and floaters that Paul thrived on in game 1.
*An aggressive Kobe. Look, we all know that the 10 FGA version of Kobe isn’t long for this series so we might as well embrace that fact right now. In game 1, Kobe came out looking for his shot and carried the Laker offense for long stretches while nearly every one of his teammates faltered. In game 2 he was intent on getting everyone else involved early and while that helped Bynum, Ron, and Odom get going, it – along with his aforementioned approach on defense – also left him grasping for an offensive rhythm of his own that proved elusive. Tonight, I expect to see Kobe find a better balance on offense and that means a more aggressive approach throughout the contest. He’s already told Phil that he’ll look to put up more than 10 shots, and I could easily see him starting the game in attack mode, looking to get to the basket where he can not only score but set up his teammates. Remember, Kobe has a history of going for the throat in road games and it’s always been his m.o. to try and step up his game when the venues turn hostile. In the Lakers four game 3′s last year he scored 24, 35, 36, and 29 points so it wouldn’t surprise to see him go for a similar number tonight in order to try and take the crowd out of the game while also putting his imprint on the contest. For what it’s worth, I’m fine with this approach. One of Kobe’s best qualities is the fact that he knows the dynamics of a game and a series as well as any great player ever. If he’s able to control this game from the outset, it will go a long way in shaping the rest of this series.
*A productive bench. Game 2 served as a nice reminder of the Lakers depth and how they have multiple players that can affect the game positively. Forget Ron, Bynum, and Odom as they’re essentially starters that play in the shadows of Kobe and Gasol. There’s an expectation that those guys can produce when called upon and game 2 was their time. Tonight, it’s very important that Blake, Barnes, and Brown can also have good games. Blake must continue to get the 2nd unit organized. Barnes must continue to run the floor, slash off the ball, and rebound. And Shannon needs to play within himself, avoid contested jumpers, and attack the basket (I’d love to see him turn the corner in a hand off sequence and simply try to dunk on whoever is in the lane). This has been a bit of a trying year for Brown and like my past critiques a couple of reserve guards that now play in New Jersey, I’ve been a hard critic of him as the season has progressed. But, I still believe that Shannon has good, disciplined ball in him and that he’ll show it in one game soon. Hopefully it’s tonight’s.
The last time the Lakers found themselves in a series tied 1-1 was last year’s Finals. That group went to Boston in that fateful game 3 and pulled out a win down the stretch with the heroics of Derek Fisher sealing the deal. This team knows how important a 2-1 lead in a series is and also understand how a road victory can deflate the opposition to set up how the rest of the series will play out. I have full confidence that the Lakers will be ready to compete and give their all. Here’s to them pulling it out and getting this series back into their hands.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time out west on KCAL and ESPN.