If game 3 was a must win for the Lakers, game 4 was certainly a must win for the Hornets. Going down 3-1 with a game at Staples Center potentially deciding the series would essentially guarantee a series loss for New Orleans and tonight they came out and played like it, answering the call and besting the Lakers 93-88 to even up the series two games a piece.
The ultimate downfall of the Lakers was two fold. First was their utter inability to control their defensive glass. The Hornets may have only grabbed 12 offensive rebounds, but when you balance that against the fact that the Lakers only had 23 defensive rebounds as a team, the picture becomes clearer as to how bad the Lakers were at defensive rebounding. (EDIT: Commenter Glove did some math on the Hornets offensive rebounds: “Second chance points really hurt the Lakers tonight. I went through the play- by-play and if I did it correctly the Hornets had 20 second chance points and they scored on nine of the twelve offensive rebounds. The times the Hornets did not score after the offensive rebound, one was the end of quarter, one the Hornets got the rebound again which they than scored and the other time they missed and the Lakers got the rebound.” Yikes.) Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum tied for the team lead with 5 defensive rebounds and no other Laker had more than 3. Pau Gasol had 2 defensive rebounds which, for comparisons sake, was one more than Derek Fisher. Meanwhile, Trevor Ariza had 6 defensive rebounds and Chris Paul had 11 defensive rebounds for the Hornets. (As an aside, it’s not so much the individual totals of the Lakers that worry me, it’s that no one stepped up to really clean the glass. When you look at the Hornets big men, their rebounding numbers aren’t that great either but Paul dropped down and secured those boards. Someone has to step up and normally that’s the Lakers’ big men. Tonight they didn’t.)
Speaking of Paul, he was the 2nd major reason the Lakers lost this game. Much like his game 1 performance, Paul was brilliant in game 4. He tallied a triple double with 27 points, 13 rebounds, and 15 assists. He controlled the game in every way imaginable, setting his teammates up for baskets all game and scoring at will in the 2nd half. On several second half possessions, he simply dictated the entire play by either running the P&R to set up a teammate or playing off the ball and getting the rock in rhythm where he could make a jumper of his own. On the play that essentially iced the game Paul ran a 1-3 pick and roll to force the switch, drove in isolation on Kobe, then hit a slashing Jarrett Jack who then hit a nice fade away 10 footer to put the Hornets up by 4 with only 9 seconds left. After that score, both teams would tack on 2 more points but Paul’s play was the one that needed to be stopped and the Lakers couldn’t do it.
And really, that was the story of the night. In crucial moments, the Hornets simply out executed the Lakers. One such stretch was at the beginning of the 4th quarter where the game was still very much up for grabs. As Zephid explains:
I don’t normally like to boil the game down to short time periods, but the game was lost when the bench allowed the Hornets to go on a 10-2 run at the beginning of the 4th where Bynum missed a number of gimmes and Brown made some really bad decisions. The game was tied 69-69 at 11:45; The Hornets led 79-71 at 7:00.
And while the Lakers battled back from that deficit to again make the game close, they could never get over the hump. Every time the Lakers looked poised to make a play to either tie the game or grab some momentum that could have put the Hornets on their heels, they couldn’t get it done. The Lakers trailed 83-80 for nearly a minute and a half and in that stretch they missed 3 three pointers (all of them relatively clean looks), grabbed an offensive rebound that ended up getting stripped away when trying to go back up, and then ended up fouling Chris Paul where he pushed the lead back to 5. With a little over a minute to go and the Lakers down by 4, Kobe drove to the basket, dropped off a wonderful shovel pass to a wide open Pau only to have it go right off his hands with him ultimately fouling Chris Paul again after he swopped in to pick up the loose ball.
On the heels of the loss however, there may be worse news yet. Down the stretch of the 4th quarter, Kobe sprained his already gimpy left ankle (this is the one that he sprained against Dallas earlier in the year) when his foot got caught in the middle of a defensive slide and his heel turned over his planted toe. The injury did force Kobe from the game only for him to return to mixed results (the aforementioned drive and dish to Gasol came after the sprain, but Kobe also missed a deep jumper that would have cut the Hornets’ lead to one in the final seconds). After the game, Kevin Ding tweeted that Kobe was on crutches while Mike Trudell quotes Kobe saying that this sprain wasn’t as bad as the one suffered against Dallas.
So while there were stories within in the game that led to this outcome, the story coming out of this game is Kobe’s ankle and the position the Lakers now find themselves in. Coming into this series I envisioned the Lakers winning in 5 or 6 games. Thursday’s game 6 is now the earliest this thing will be over and with Kobe gimpy and the Lakers front court decidedly up and down, the Lakers have put themselves in a tough situation. I do think they’ll still win the series, but with by the time game 6 rolls around the Lakers will have played 5 games in 9 days and put a bit extra wear on their tires for what they hope is another long playoff run. Closing this series down faster and without any additional nicks, bruises, or sprains would have been best. Obviously the Hornets have a lot to do with how this series has played out, but it’s also fair to say that the Lakers haven’t done themselves any favors. So now, we wait until Tuesday to see if the Lakers can respond. Hopefully Kobe is ready to go and the Lakers bigs can find their stride similar to what they showed in game 3.