Archives For April 2011

From Mike Bresnahan, LA Times: The Lakers swerved unsteadily into an ever-widening valley separating them from a third consecutive championship, their charter flight depositing them Monday at LAX at 3:30 a.m. before they reconvened 10 hours later at their training facility. Sleepy, injured, distracted, confused — choose any descriptor. Few would have predicted it four games into the first round against New Orleans. Despite an 11-game difference in the regular-season standings, the Lakers are somehow tied with the Hornets going into Game 5 Tuesday night at Staples Center.

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: For Kobe to eschew the doctor’s office at the very least combines some of the more notable personality features of Dalton (“Pain don’t hurt.”) and The Black Knight (“It’s just a flesh wound” mixed with a useful sense of denial). At the same time, rather than thinking Bryant believes the tests unnecessary because, as a guy who gets hurt all the time, his internal physician says nothing serious happened, I’m left with the opposite impression. He doesn’t want them precisely because of concern the results would reveal a less-than-rosy diagnosis.  I certainly could be wrong- Bryant didn’t speak to the media Monday, so we couldn’t ask- and frankly would prefer to be. But we received no indication his condition had improved (Jackson said it was the same as Sunday night), and remember Bryant left the arena on crutches after Game 4.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: This isn’t even a debate on whether he should sit or should he play. Given the stakes of a 2-2 series, Bryant’s clearly doing everything possible to make sure he’s in the best shape to walk onto Staples Center court Tuesday night. After using crutches to leave New Orleans arena and onto the team bus, Bryant spent the four-hour flight receiving various treatment, including icing, electronic stimulation and massage therapy. As Bryant told reporters after Game 4, “It’s going to take a lot to stop me to play. We’ll make sure we stay on top of it.” This is more of a trust issue. For all the round the clock treatment and rehabilitation, Vitti, physical therapist Judy Seto, massage therapist Marko Yrjovuori and athletic performance coordinator Alex McKechnie provide for Bryant, the least he could do is return the favor. For someone who’s fixated on knowing every single detail surrounding his body, Bryant’s refusal to take the diagnostic tests only makes it harder for the Lakers’ medical staff to determine exactly what treatment he needs to keep his ankle healthy throughout the postseason. As much as Bryant clearly doesn’t want anything to get in the way of him playing to pursue a sixth ring, his stubbornness is making it harder for both himself and his teammates.

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: Lakers forward Matt Barnes called Paul “the head of the snake” after those 27 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds Sunday night. Oscar Robertson used to be the only player in NBA history with at least 25 points, 15 assists, and 10 rebounds in a playoff game. Not anymore. Paul was also historically good in Game 1, and then Barnes used the same “snake” term after the Lakers won Game 2 – the night Bryant overruled Jackson with his decision to guard Paul personally most of the game. Said Barnes then: “Cut the head off their snake.” That, again, is the classic playoff mentality: the best willing and wanting to take on the best. Bryant said he wanted to “send a message” to his teammates about being able to change playoff games in subtle ways. He even looked subtly different as he did it. In Game 2 he wore a tighter Lakers jersey a lot like the tighter USA Basketball No. 10 jersey Bryant wore when he embraced the role of defensive stopper in winning the 2008 Olympic gold medal. (Bryant had gotten a smaller jersey for a public-service announcement and decided it looked good and fit the moment – though he realized during Game 2 that it was too tight and not real comfortable.) Paul was with Bryant in 2008, leading that Olympic team in assists. That helped Bryant understand this much about CP3: “When it’s all said and done, he’ll be one of the best to ever lace ‘em up.”

From Ryan Schwan, Hornets 24/7: However, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, because last game something happened that could turn this series: Bryant injured his foot at the end of the game. Now, I know a lot of people will see that as a bonus for the Hornets, something that could help them take this thing. I actually feel the exact opposite. If Kobe is slowed, if he is unable to play the way he wants to, if he feels he has to slow down at all, I think that will be the worst possible outcome for the Hornets. Why? Because the Lakers’ one overwhelming advantage this series has been their big men. It’s not Kobe that’s dictating who wins and loses these games. In fact, his performance has almost no correlation to whether his team wins. When he’s played well, they’ve lost one and won one. When he’s played badly, they’ve lost one and won one. No, it’s been Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom who have dictated this series. When Bynum gets more than 10 shots in a game, they’ve won. When Odom has been aggressive and taken more than a half-dozen shots, the Lakers’ have won. So forgive me if I’m a little worried about Kobe’s ankle. The more shots that go to his teammates, the more dangerous the Lakers are.

From Zach Lowe, The Point Forward: These Lakers lost 14 games total in the previous two postseasons, more losses than each of Jackson’s previous three-peaters suffered combined in three playoff seasons. That comparison is obviously faulty because Jackson’s other groups had the benefit of a shorter best-of-five series in the first round. Since the league made the first round best-of-seven starting in 2002-03, only one team (the 2006-07 Spurs) has won the title with fewer than seven postseason losses. The Lakers have lost seven games in each of the last two postseasons, and it looks like they’ll lose more than that if they advance to the Finals. Even if they have not been uniquely vulnerable in the last three seasons, they have indeed been on the edge of defeat several times. Houston took them to seven games in the conference semifinals two seasons ago, and the Nuggets were a couple of Trevor Ariza steals from at least forcing a seventh game of the conference finals that year. And we all remember the improbable last-second put-backs that saved Los Angeles from Game 7s against both the Thunder and the Suns last season. If you make enough plays like that, the myth of invincibility grows.

From Dexter Fishmore, Silver Screen & Roll: Even today, with the series tied at two games apiece, the mood in Lakerland isn’t riven through with anxiety so much as teeth-grinding impatience. The perception, I gather (and it’s one I share), is that an inevitability has been simply postponed. As C.A. noted last night, the Lakers have a track record of honking Game Four after they’ve scored a critical Game Three victory on the road, so the steaming pile they dropped last night really shouldn’t have been such a surprise. And they’ve been terrific about bouncing back in Game Five: in the Gasol era, they’re 5-1 in fifth games when the series is tied 2-2. The Lakers still have home-court advantage, and they still have the big edge in talent. Odds are by Saturday night, if not sooner, we’ll be hashing out scouting reports for the champs’ second-round opponent. But here’s the thing: every massive upset seems deeply improbable right up to the point when it actually happens. If you could see it coming, it wouldn’t be a massive upset. So even though I think Laker fans are right to remain confident about this series, it’s worth considering… what if we’re wrong? What if there’s something we’re missing? What if the Lakers are Wile E. Coyote suspended in midair, not yet realizing that gravity’s about to make their lives miserable?

From J.A. Adande, TrueHoop: The court-ordered end to the NFL lockout by a U.S. district judge Monday will certainly resonate with the National Basketball Players Association as it considers whether to follow a similar strategy of decertification and litigation if the NBA owners impose a lockout as is widely expected this summer. “I have to get a look at more information in terms of how the decision was made, what factors, what criteria it was based on,” said Lakers guard Derek Fisher, the player president of the NBPA. “But I don’t think there’s any question that how some of the things on the NFL side are playing out are going to impact the way our NBA labor situation plays out. They’re not exactly the same, there are a lot of differences. But there are also some similarities that I think will give us as players as well as our owners a little bit of an indication of how things would play out if we went down certain paths. So I’m sure both sides will continue to watch the NFL situation closely.”

It’s a common held belief that the Lakers biggest strength is that they have three top level big men that they can deploy in any combination that opponents struggle to match up with. I’ve long been a member of that school of thought and still hold the belief that if the Lakers are to claim their third championship in as many years it’s their big men that will do a lot of the heavy lifting. That said, this is also a problem of sorts for the Lakers. You see, only two of these three bigs can play at any given time and that means that one of the Lakers best players will always be on the bench watching instead of helping the team win. Granted this is a great problem and one that every team in the league would love to have, but it’s a problem nonetheless. In any given game the coaches have to make hard choices as to who plays and who sits; choices that can affect the outcome in any given game.

Looking at the Lakers/Hornets series, we’re now at the point where questioning those choices is fair game.

First, let me say that there isn’t a coach I respect more than Phil Jackson. He’s a championship coach 11 times over and his ability to coax the best out of the great players he’s had at his disposal is second to none. The old phrase “he’s forgotten more basketball than I’ll ever know” certainly applies here and I’d be foolish to suggest that I have some sort of magic elixir that he’s not thought of. That said, the Lakers are tied 2-2 in a series in which they have more talent – especially in the front court – and some of that is related to the fact the Lakers big men have under-performed. With that being the case, it’s certainly fair to ask whether or not the Lakers are playing the right combination of big men and if there should be a shift in who plays, how much they play, and when they play.

Using NBA.com’s Stat’s Cube, there are some interesting numbers that need to be explored further. Consider the following defensive statistics:

  • When Andrew Bynum is on the court, the Hornets post an offensive efficiency of 97.86. When he is off the court, that number jumps to 116.24. That’s a net difference of 18.38 less points scored per 100 possessions when Bynum is on the court vs. when he sits.
  • For Gasol, those same numbers are 104.87 (on) and 101.37 (off). Odom’s numbers are 108.06 (on) and 98.76 (off).

What these numbers tell us is that Andrew Bynum is the Lakers best defensive big and it isn’t even close. His numbers are so great that he positively affects the other Laker big men just by sharing the court with them. Now consider the following offensive numbers:

  • When Bynum is on the court, the Lakers post an offensive efficiency of 105.59. When he’s off the court, that number goes up to 110.88.
  • For Gasol those numbers are 108.01 (on) and 105.69 (off). Odom’s numbers are 106.84 (on) and 108.27 (off).

Based off these numbers, it’s also fair to say that the Laker lineups that don’t include Bynum perform better offensively. They score over 5 points more per 100 possessions and both Odom and Gasol have better on court numbers than Bynum does.

Essentially, this is the trade off that the Lakers face every single game. Bynum is a key defensive performer but Gasol and Lamar are part of line ups that score better. Intrinsically, this makes sense. Sure Bynum has been the Lakers’ best post up threat and has been beastly when isolated on the low block. That said, both Odom and Gasol offer more diverse offensive games, showing a greater ability to run the Laker offense and set up teammates within the flow of the Triangle.

All that said, when you look at the statistics and the line ups a bit closer, it’s easier to identify who the weak link in the front court has been so far this series. The answer to that question is….Lamar Odom.

Lamar Odom is the only member of the big man trio to boast a negative efficiency differential when he’s on the court - the Hornets score 1.22 points more per 100 possessions when Odom is playing. Said another way, when Odom is on the court, the Lakers are a worse team so far this series. In converse, Bynum has the best efficiency differential (+7.73) and Gasol is no slouch either (+3.14). Over at Basketball Value, this is spelled out even clearer. The Lakers top two line ups in terms of minutes played are their starting line up (73.4 minutes) and the line up where Odom replaces Bynum (33.23 minutes). The Lakers starting line up has an efficiency differential of +11.52 while the lineup that swaps Bynum for Odom has a differential of -15.19.

It’s this last stat that is most damning as this is the lineup that Phil Jackson uses to close out games. Granted, these are small sample sizes, but the swing in differential is so big it can’t be ignored. Sure, both line ups score about the same (about 110 points/100 possessions) but the difference in defensive effectiveness is off the charts as the unit with Bynum has a defensive efficiency of 98.5 while the line up that swaps ‘Drew for LO has a rating of 124.6.

In the end, the solution here is pretty clear. Lamar Odom – as much as I love him – needs to either play drastically better or needs to be substituted in favor of Andrew Bynum much less. This isn’t to say that Odom shouldn’t play at all, but it does mean that he shouldn’t be paired with Gasol nearly as much and definitely shouldn’t be closing out games next to him. The other side to that coin is that Bynum definitely should be closing against this Hornets team. Sure, the Lakers perform slightly worse on offense with Bynum in the game but the improvement on defense is too large to be pushed to the side. And to be honest, it doesn’t matter if Bynum closes next to Gasol (though that is preferred) or Odom, as long as he closes. This may all change if the Lakers advance and face a different team but against the Hornets, it’s what the numbers (and my eyes) are telling me.

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: In Game 3, the Lakers turned the Hornets into a one-and-done group, locking down the defensive glass as New Orleans had only four offensive boards. Sunday, they weren’t nearly as clean. The first half was particularly problematic, when the Lakers delivered the totally non-productive pairing of allowing New Orleans to shoot a high percentage (52.5 percent) while allowing enough offensive boards (six) to help the Hornets to a plus-eight advantage in second chance points over the first 24 minutes, and 20 overall. From there, feel free to criticize the team’s overall effort on the glass. Over the first three games, the Lakers were +21 in total rebounding. Tonight, the Hornets outdid them by seven. Chris Paul had as many rebounds (13) as Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol combined. That ain’t good.

From ESPN Stats and Info: He’s done it 11 times in his regular-season career, but just once before in the playoffs until Sunday. With 27 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists, Chris Paul recorded his second career triple-double in the postseason. The Elias Sports Bureau tells us Paul joined Hall-of-Famer Oscar Robertson as the only players with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 15 assists in a playoff game. Robertson accomplished that feat twice, once in 1962 against the Detroit Pistons and again in 1964 against the Philadelphia 76ers. Paul was also a perfect 11-11 from the free throw line, something Robertson did too in that 1964 game when he was 12-12 in free throws. It’s just the sixth triple-double in the postseason against the Lakers in the last 20 seasons. Paul joins Rajon Rondo, Tim Duncan, Steve Francis and Jason Kidd who did it twice. Paul has 60 points, 20 rebounds and 29 assists in the Hornets’ two wins this series coming within three rebounds of a triple-double in Game 1.

From Joe Gerrity, Hornets 24/7: In a game in which even his own coach was willing to describe as “must win”, Chris Paul delivered one of the most impressive basketball performances of not only his career, but in the entire history of the NBA. Think I’m exaggerating? You didn’t watch the game. The craziest things about it were that he didn’t score a bucket until 23 minutes in, and was playing with an eye AND thumb injury. Regardless, it was a performance that will never be forgotten by anyone in attendance or watching at home. Lakers fans will close their eyes tonight and see Chris Paul crossovers until they awake in the morning. Tomorrow they’ll be flashing back to it all day. CP3 was out-jumping everyone in sight for rebounds, successfully defending Andrew Bynum when need be, getting the crucial points when the Hornets needed them, and even setting up Mbenga on a fast Mbreak. He finished by closing the game just like everyone knew he would, scoring 14 on only five shots in the final quarter. When he wanted the ball, he just went and got it. In fact, he just did whatever he wanted all night long. This CP3 is even better than CP3 from the 2008 playoffs. Tonight was even better than his game one performance, and the team needed every bit of it.

From C.A. Clark, Silver Screen and Roll: The New Orleans Hornets evened up their first round series with the Los Angeles Lakers behind another mesmerizing Chris Paul performance, leading his team to victory 93-88.  No matter the shade of glasses you watch the game with, that should be the story.  CP3 had a massive triple double, scoring 27 points, dishing out 15 assists, and pulling down 13 rebounds.  He was the best player on the court.  He was the second best player on the court, too.  Why do I say this?  Because you can add up the box scores of any two players on either team, and fail to reach Paul’s contributions to this game.  Go ahead and give it a try … Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol?  33 points, but just 10 rebounds and 12 assists.  Kobe and Bynum? 28 points, and 15 boards, but only 8 assists.  Andrew and Pau?  27 points, 13 boards and 4 assists.  Something about that last line seems familiar … oh, that’s right, it looks just like Paul’s.  The Lakers starting center and power forward, likely the best combo of center and power forward on any team in the league, combined for the same number of points AND REBOUNDS as a six foot tall point guard in a playoff game.

From Kurt Helin, Pro Basketball Talk: Bask in the glory that is Chris Paul. We as basketball fans need to step back and revel in great games and great players, and Chris Paul is one and did that. He was dominant Sunday night, he was the reason the Hornets won 93-88 to even the series. He put up 23 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds — in the second half. For the game it was 27 points 15 assists and 13 rebounds. He was draining corner threes, driving the lane and when the defense collapsed was willing to pass to Jarrett Jack — who didn’t have a bucket on the night before that — to hit the dagger with 9 seconds left. Paul was brilliant late in the game in a “how high can he go on the all time point guard list?” kind of way. Paul was embarrassing Derek Fisher with steals and slashing to the rim as well as anyone in the league.

From Rohan, At the Hive: Sometimes, a game leaves you without words. It’s a cliche. It’s also really the only way to open this. Don’t get me wrong. Chris Paul has had better games. Those fans and writers lucky enough to follow him since he first arrived from Wake Forest will certainly tell you so. He has been more productive, more creative, more error-free, more asphyxiating, more irrepressible. There have been games during which he’s inspired genuine sympathy amongst observers on behalf of opposing point guards and coaches. Few of us will forget the nights in Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix, or New Orleans that made us wonder if, a decade from now, we’d be talking about Chris Paul, the best point guard ever. But Chris Paul has never played a game quite like this one before.

From Daniel Buerge, Lakers Nation: The Lakers and Hornets took the court tonight in a crucial Game 4 match-up. The implications that tonight’s game carried were certainly extreme. If Los Angeles won they would take a 3-1 series lead heading back to Staples Center with a chance to eliminate the Hornets on their home court. If New Orleans won they would tie the series at 2-2, assuring at least two more games before either team could advance. After an impressive win in Game 3 the Lakers appeared to have regained their composure following a stunning loss in Game 1. A vintage performance from Kobe Bryant coupled with a strong first half from young Andrew Bynum propelled the Lakers to a 100-86 victory. Los Angeles also saw the resurgence of Pau Gasol, who had been virtually nonexistent in the first two games of the series. Gasol picked up his game down the stretch to help seal the game for the Lakers. Heading into tonight’s Game 4 the Lakers were looking to win their third straight game and push New Orleans to the brink of elimination. The Hornets wanted to even the series at two. Only one team would be successful.

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: New Orleans Hornets coach Monty Williams said the Lakers regained “their championship approach” to take a 2-1 lead in this first-round playoff series.Lakers coach Phil Jackson said they sure didn’t have it in losing Game 4 on Sunday night, 93-88, to the Hornets. “We punked out on the court … 20 second-chance points (for New Orleans),” Jackson said. Jackson cited Kobe Bryant’s “very uneven game” as part of the problem, in addition to Chris Paul shredding the Lakers for 27 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds despite a jammed left thumb. About Bryant’s left ankle, which was already sprained but aggravated with 1:32 to play, Jackson said: “I really don’t know.”

From Mark Medina, LA Times: Overlook Kobe Bryant’s scoreless first-half performance. Forget about Chris Paul’s triple-double effort. And accept the Lakers’ nearly three-quarter stretch in which they didn’t grab an offensive rebound. There’s plenty of blame to go around for the Lakers’ 93-88 Game 4 loss to the New Orleans Hornets on Sunday, forcing the Lakers to return to New Orleans for Game 6 Thursday and adding further stress to a series they should have controlled. The Lakers could have secured an ugly win if not for numerous lapses in the final 3:30. There were certainly some key plays in those final minutes that went the Lakers’ way, but too many of them were executed the wrong way. Below is a play-by-play account of what went wrong in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.

From Mike Bresnahan, LA Times: The season that won’t stop teasing Lakers fans reached a new level — annoyance. And fear. The Lakers and their alleged reputation — two-time defending champions, second-seeded team in the Western Conference — were scoffed at again by the New Orleans Hornets. There was absolutely no trepidation as Chris Paul ripped through the Lakers in a 93-88 Hornets victory that evened the first-round playoff series at two games each Sunday night at New Orleans Arena. Paul had 27 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds to become one of the few players ever to get a triple-double against the Lakers in 712 playoff games. Rajon Rondo had one last year. It gets worse from there.

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.

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.