Lakers aren't used to seeing the New Orleans Hornets struggle
It was only two seasons ago that the Lakers and New Orleans Hornets were competing for supremacy in the Western Conference. This season, any standings update now involves the Lakers (54-19), the Dallas Mavericks (48-25), Denver Nuggets (48-26) and Utah Jazz (48-26) fighting for the top spot in the West. Meanwhile, the Hornets (34-40) were officially eliminated from playoff contention for the first time in three years after their 112-101 loss Saturday to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Suddenly, the Lakers have to replicate the same urgency against New Orleans Monday night as they would have last season. It's tempting to look ahead to the Lakers' game Wednesday against Atlanta (47-26) in their final contest of a five-game trip, but the Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has set out for the team to win at least 60 games before the end of the regular season. With nine games remaining, that means the Lakers must go 6-3.
Team: New Orleans Hornets (34-40)
When: Monday, 5 PDT (KCAL-9)
Record vs. Hornets this season: 2-0
Matchup history: Even without forward Pau Gasol (strained right hamstring) and center Andrew Bynum (strained elbow and sore triceps in his right arm), the Lakers coasted to a 104-88 victory Nov. 8 against New Orleans. And it didn't even require a huge effort from Kobe Bryant, who put up 28 points. That's good news for the Lakers this time around, considering Bynum remains out of the lineup because of a strained left Achilles' tendon and Bryant has averaged only 14 points on 44% in his last two games. As an added bonus, Gasol is healthy and is coming off a season-high 30-point performance against Houston. The Lakers' first game against New Orleans also featured the Lakers providing bench support (46 points, including 12 from D.J. Mbenga), meaning Monday night's game would be a good opportunity to establish more consistency. Unfortunately, it's hard to predict what the Lakers bench will do. In the Lakers' 110-99 victory Dec. 1 against the Hornets, the Lakers' reserves allowed New Orleans to chop a 21-point lead to 10 with 1:50 remaining in the game. Sounds oddly familiar to the Lakers' recent game against Washington in which the bench allowed the Wizards to come back from a double-digit, fourth-quarter deficit. Nonetheless, the Lakers knew the result as early as halftime when they outscored New Orleans, 31-15.
Outlook: All signs point to a Lakers win tonight. New Orleans has lost five of its last six games, Hornets guard Chris Paul has only played three games since missing 25 because of torn cartilage in his left knee and New Orleans could feel discouraged from even trying considering it just was officially eliminated from having at least a mathematical chance from the postseason. Even if New Orleans shows an honest effort, the team has already made a decision that indicates it's building toward the future beyond this season. Hornets rookie guard Marcus Thornton will start at the two with the unenviable task of guarding Bryant, a move that speaks to the team's confidence level about Thornton's potential. Meanwhile, the Lakers have a chance to prove they really mean it when they say they want to play their best basketball regardless of the opponent. It's something the team has struggled to grasp as its hunger level and its want to pace itself for the playoffs has been severely tested with good-enough-to-get-by wins against Philadelphia, Indiana, Toronto, Golden State, Minnesota, Washington and Houston.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: New Orleans Hornets guard Chris Paul drives between Lakers' Sasha Vujacic, left, and Pau Gasol. Credit: Chris Graythen / Getty Images