Before the game, I mentioned that tonight – like it or not – questions would be answered tonight. Suffice to say, we like the answers. The Lakers came out ready to play top shelf basketball and by doing so took down the Hornets 106-90 to take a 3-2 lead in the series. The Lakers are now on the verge of advancing and it only took them 5 contests to bring forth their best game of the series.
Through the first 12 minutes, however, I’m not sure any of us thought this game would turn out this way. The Hornets came out on fire, making 13 of their first 16 attempts from the floor and dropping a 32 spot on the Lakers in the first period. Every jumper either went through the hoop cleanly or tortured the home fans by bouncing on every part of the rim before dropping through. Trevor Ariza was especially deadly as a scorer, hitting all 4 of his field goals (including 2 three pointers) for 10 quick points. The Laker wings barely rotated to Ariza when he caught the ball and he made them pay the way he did so many of the Lakers’ opponents back in 2009 when he donned that purple and gold #3. Meanwhile, Chris Paul was equally brilliant as a distributor racking up 8 assists in that first frame. Paul, as he has for most of this series, controlled the tempo and tenor of the game by running the P&R to perfection and getting into the open court to break down the slow transitioning Laker D.
On the Laker side, they were able to stay close but only barely. With Kobe clearly not 100%, the Lakers pounded the ball inside to Gasol and Bynum to try and establish their inside game. The Laker bigs combined to take 13 first quarter shots, making 6 of them and scoring 14 points in the process. Clearly their strategy was to control the game by dominating the paint but with the Hornets shooting 81% early on, the strategy wasn’t really working as the Lakers plodding style wasn’t able to keep pace with the hot shooting Hornets.
However, at the start of the 2nd period that started to change. The Laker reserves came into game and turned the tempo around. Blake and Barnes started to pressure the ball, Shannon Brown – though making some questionable decisions in the early part of his stint – hit a couple of big threes, and slowly the Hornets started to regress to the mean by missing shots. Before you knew it, the Hornets 9 point lead was down to a single point and the Lakers were in position to take control of the game. All they needed was one last spark to push them over the top. Re-enter Kobe Bryant.
After taking his normal rest at the end if the 1st quarter, Kobe came back in determined to make his mark on the game. No longer would he simply stand on the weak side while the ball went into the post. He wanted into the action and he was going to bully his way into the fray if need be. Then, like a scene from 2006, Kobe put his mark on the game the doubts about his ankle out of everyone’s mind.
After that spectacular play, the Lakers and Kobe had a newfound energy. Suddenly, the defense was even better and the offense ran more smoothly. Kobe took the ball into his hands and was aggressive attacking the hoop, pouring in 12 of his 19 points in the period. And when Kobe wasn’t attacking, the ball moved crisply around the perimeter and into the post to big men that had found their rhythm earlier in the game. What resulted was a 31 point quarter for the Lakers to only a 19 point output for the Hornets.
In the 2nd half, these trends only became more established. The Laker bigs continued their dominance inside by gobbling up rebounds on both ends of the floor and limiting the Hornets ability to do any real damage inside. And as the numbers for the game detail, the Lakers simply dominated the inside. I mean, the Lakers won the rebounding battle 42-25, the offensive rebounding margin was 15-3, and the second chance point battle 22-2. Where Bynum (6-11, 18 points) and Gasol (6-12, 16 points) combined for 34 points, Okafor and Landry only contributed 13 combined. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
But it wasn’t just the Lakers starting bigs that were efficient, Ron and Fisher also had themselves very good games. Ron continued his excellent two-way play by scoring 11 points of his own and playing very good D on Ariza after Trevor had that hot 1st period. And sure, Ron ceded some open jumpers to Trevor but he also cut off his drives and made him settle for may off balance pull up jumpers and awkward shots off the dribble when he couldn’t get all the way to the rim. At one point Ariza missed 6 of 7 shots and a lot of that had to do with the job that Ron did on him. Meanwhile, Fisher was simply excellent in this game. 13 points on 5 of 6 shooting for Fisher, not to mention some solid defense on Paul when put on an island in isolation (not something we expect, that’s for sure).
In the end though, what I liked most about this game was that the team effort really did come from patience and discipline. In a game where the Hornets jumped out quickly due to their outside shooting, the Lakers stuck to their plan by going inside and slowly wore the Hornets down. When an energy boost was needed, the reserves came in and played aggressively and outperformed their counterparts on from the Hornets bench. And when the bench went out, Kobe came in and picked up the entire team by performing at a level that was completely unexpected considering how he looked after game 4 and in the early part of this game. As a team, the Lakers played smart, physical basketball and treated the fans to great win in the process. After the first quarter, they played excellent defense and dominated the backboards thoroughly. They really did provide a complete performance on a night that they needed it. Hopefully, they can do the same on Thursday to close out the series.