Like it or not, questions will be answered tonight. Is Kobe’s ankle really okay enough to play on? If so, good enough play effectively? Will the Lakers go back to playing physically with Chris Paul to limit his effectiveness? Will the confidence that Andrew Bynum showed in post practice interviews translate to the court? (“Our offense will be better. Our defense will be better. We will win game 5.)
The Lakers know how important this game 5 is. A loss means facing elimination on the road for the first time since the 2008 Finals. Winning means the chance to close out the series on the road in game 6 – something they’ve done quite well over the past three seasons. Tonight’s game may not be for all the marbles, but the loser will see their window of opportunity to advance nearly close completely.
A few things I hope to see in this game:
*A consistent approach throughout the game on offense. In game 4, Ron Artest scored 16 points in the first half on 7-9 shooting. He ended the game, however, with those same 16 points on 7-10 shooting. Early on, Gasol showed flashes of early success in the post and from the shallow wing only to not get as many opportunities as the game progressed. Kobe didn’t score (going 0-7 from the field) in the first half but distributed expertly for 7 assists in those first 24 minutes, only to go off for 17 points in the 2nd half while only tallying 1 additional dime. I’d prefer not see another game with a bipolar approach on offense. The Lakers must commit to running their sets (which do include isolations) and look to get everyone involved early while sticking with that plan throughout the rest of the game. Gasol, Bynum, and Ron could all use consistent touches in the paint to get them going and Kobe – with his bum wheel – could do well for himself by playing the set up man while possessing the ball and looking to move into positions to score while moving off the ball.
*Physical, smart defense on Paul, Ariza, and Landry. These three Hornets are the only players that have any damage on offense over the course of the series. Sure Gray, Jack, and Okafor have all been okay in stretches. But New Orleans’ offense is predicated off these three guys producing if they hope to win. Guarding Paul is not easy, but as Beckley Mason describes, it involves the Lakers getting a little rough:
There’s no magic elixir that can fully neutralize Paul and the New Orleans attack, no cunning tactical trick that will suddenly close the angles that Paul creates, or predict his path in and out of the lane. The Lakers just need to remember that he’s barely six feet tall, and his teammates define the term “Replacement Value.” Touch him, bully him, rotate a few players on him whose only directive is to get in his way, and compete with him for every inch, however menial. That’s the key: multiple players can expend maximum energy to bother Paul, but New Orleans has only one savior.
As for Ariza and Landry, the plan remains the same: make them shoot jumpers. Too often Ariza has been able to work off the dribble to find the painted area. The Lakers must treat him like Rondo – lay off and when he drives sit on his right hand. Ariza has a boat load of confidence right now but that can be a curse too. He has no qualms with firing up a contested 18 footer off the dribble if that’s what’s presented. Present it more, please. Landry, meanwhile has found his success lurking around the paint being nurtured off the scraps that Chris Paul and the other Hornets’ guards feed him. Like a baby chick in a sea of his siblings, Landry is finding creases in the crowd and getting to the front of the line with his mouth open and eating like a king. The Lakers need to more effectively mark him in space and do a better job of cutting off passing angles when the ball is penetrated. An improved job on Paul will help with limiting Landry, but a more active approach to finding and sticking with him in space will too. One match up that we’ve not seen that much is Artest on Landry, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some of it tonight. Ron has the foot speed to stay with Landry and has the strength to keep him from getting to the paint easily. Plus, Ron has the hand quickness to poke the ball away from a big man that relies heavily on off the dribble work to get to the paint. If the Lakers go small tonight, I wouldn’t mind seeing Ron do battle with NO’s power forward.
*Rebound, rebound, rebound. Last year, we often reiterated Pat Riley’s mantra of “no rebounds, no rings”. The Lakers would do well to remember what the old Showtime coach preached. Mind you, I’m not just speaking about the big men here. The Lakers guards must close down the free throw line and chase down long rebounds. We can’t ask Bynum, Gasol, and Odom to gain inside position and battle the Hornets’ bigs for space and then complain when the ball bounces long and a Hornet finds a way to chase down the ball. The Lakers guards can not leak out and mustn’t stand flat footed when the ball comes off the rim. Defensive possessions end with a defensive rebound; chase the ball down to finish the play.
*A better night from Odom. Yesterday I was quite frank about Odom’s lack of production and how it’s hurt this team. And while I stand by the fact that Bynum should be closing games, it doesn’t change the fact that LO likely will be playing in the closing minutes of a tight contest. All year Odom’s been a key performer and in games 2 and 3 his efforts helped secure wins. Tonight, the Lakers will need Odom to perform at those levels; the level that earned him the 6th MOY award. Odom’s long been one of my favorite players and he’s been an underrated player in terms of stepping up in crucial games. Tonight, I’d like to see the rebounding, coast to coast driving, setting up teammates for easy buckets version of LO. He’s certainly got it in him.
Games like these are the ones that championship teams win. The star player is banged up, but he’s played through injury before and knows how to do so smartly. The role players are at home and normally play better in those circumstances. The big men have been up and down but know that they’re the key to winning this series. Tonight the Lakers should put it all together and come out strong. The Hornets aren’t going to give this game away; the Lakers must take it from them. Let’s see them do it tonight.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time locally on Fox Sports West and nationally on TNT.