It’s safe to say that any panic that swept through Lakerdom after losing Game 1 only one week ago is long gone by now as L.A. has a chance to put this series to bed with another road win today. Give the Hornets all the credit in the world for scrapping their way to a somewhat unexpectedly competitive series so far, but as we all witnessed in Game 3, they simply can’t match the Lakers’ talent. I expect New Orleans to put up a fight early on in tonight’s game, which L.A. will need to overcome if it hopes to take a decisive series lead. The Lakers have already reclaimed home court advantage, but today is all about putting a dagger in the undermanned Hornets.
Here are a few keys to look for in tonight’s game:
• The Lakers Bigs. The Lakers frontline was the big story of Game 3 as Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom finally asserted their dominance in this series. Try as they might, New Orleans’ Emeka Okafor, Carl Landry and Game 1 hero Aaron Gray simply have no definitive answer for the Lakers’ three-headed monster. Bynum (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Gasol (17 points, 10 rebounds) in particular shined in Game 3, with Andrew dominating the first half and Pau making the Hornets pay in the second. Their effort on the offensive glass was a difference-maker, as the duo was responsible for nine of the Lakers’ 14 offensive rebounds. I give a lot of credit to both players — especially Pau late in the third quarter and fourth when the game was still up for grabs — for being more aggressive from the get-go. The Lakers guards also made a more concerted effort to exploit the Lakers’ size advantage — something they’ll need to replicate in Game 4.
• Kobe Bryant’s killer instinct. While the Lakers can overwhelm New Orleans inside, they also have a decided advantage at shooting guard as well where Kobe has pretty much been able to do as he pleases trough three games. Trevor Ariza is a solid defender in his own right, but Bryant was able to shift seamlessly from scorer to passer and back in Game 3, finishing with 30 points on an efficient 10-20 clip. Based on the Lakers’ success down low in Game 3, I expect Kobe to look to get Pau and Andrew involved early on tonight, before his killer instinct takes over late in the game. More than any other Laker other than Derek Fisher, Bryant can taste blood in the water heading into Game 4.
• Chris Paul’s MVP-level play. Chris Paul came back down to Earth a bit in Game 3, but his contributions alone were still enough to keep New Orleans afloat for most of the game. Paul wound up with 22 points and eight assists, but unlike Game 1 — and to a lesser extent, Game 2 — he wasn’t able to fully assert his authority on the Lakers in Game 3. L.A. finally seemed to gain some control over the Hornet’s pick and roll in Game 3, but stopping Paul’s speed altogether is probably too much to ask for at this point. As the engine that makes the Hornets go, I’d look for Paul to get off to a quick start and try and rally what will no doubt be a feisty New Orleans crowd. If he can contribute another herculean effort as he did in Game 1, the Hornets have a real chance to tie the series. If he can’t match that, though, New Orleans is going to need someone else to step up. Carl Landry (23 points) tried in Game 3, but is still wasn’t enough to make a true dent in the Lakers improved defense.
• Whose bench shows up? After unexpectedly causing the Lakers all kinds of problems on the road, the Hornets bench disappeared in Game 3. Normally, you’d expect a bench to flourish while playing in front New Orleans’ sea of yellow, but that was anything but the case on Friday as they only mustered a combined nine points. Jarrett Jack, Gray, Willie Green and Quincy Pondexter have got to have a larger impact in Game 4 for the Hornets to have any chance of tying the series. On the Lakers’ side, Odom came up with a quietly effective 13 points and nine rebounds in Game 3 that far and away led the Lakers’ subs. He’ll likely need help in Game 4, though.