Lakers' 101-95 victory over New Orleans Hornets shows team effort
They were there after the Lakers secured a 101-95 victory Saturday over the New Orleans Hornets, marking off one win at the start of a seven-game trip. They were there when Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol complemented each other with 32 and 34 points, respectively, perfecting the triangular balance between Bryant driving and firing from the outside (10 of 21), partly off double teams on Gasol, and Gasol dropping mid-range jumpers and baskets close to the lane (13 of 17), in part when the Hornets' defense focused on Bryant.
They were there when Lamar Odom made a crucial put-back to give the Lakers a 97-92 lead with 2:40 remaining, a gesture that was absent in the final play of the Lakers' one-point loss on Thursday to San Antonio. And they were there after Ron Artest's three blocks and three steals and Derek Fisher's two steals and numerous charges helped spark energy on the other end.
Surely, there were signs that showed the Lakers have plenty of areas to sharpen as they continue their trip, with the next stop Monday at Memphis, which previously beat the Lakers by a double-digit margin. The Lakers didn't exactly "stretch the lead" when Coach Phil Jackson instructed the team to widen its 56-50 halftime advantage, as reported by KCAL's John Ireland. They entered the fourth quarter trailing 82-81 and the Lakers couldn't secure a victory until Bryant's two free throws gave them a 101-95 lead with 14 seconds remaining. The Lakers didn't always play model defense. The Hornets went a sizzling nine of 21 from downtown in part because the Lakers left perimeter shooters open and in part because of an inability to defend the pick and roll. New Orleans point guard Chris Paul scored 21 points on eight-of-11 shooting, including three of four from three-point range, while the Hornets got balanced scoring from David West (16), Marcus Thornton (14), David Andersen (11) and Aaron Gray (10). And the Lakers didn't exactly show their strong suit from the outside, going six of 18 from three-point range, including a two-of-10 combined clip from Ron Artest, Derek Fisher and Steve Blake.
The exact significance of the Lakers' victory over New Orleans might prove fleeting and insignificant. Their most impressive road performance is a 103-88 win Dec. 29 over the Hornets followed with a mail-it-in victory over Philadelphia and then a double-digit loss to Memphis. The victory by the Lakers (35-16) does very little to improve their standing in the Western Conference, as they remain a half-game behind the Dallas Mavericks (35-15) and 8 1/2 games behind the San Antonio Spurs (42-8). But the Lakers offered plenty of signs of what could be a good start to the road trip.
There was ball movement. Whether it was Gasol making an interior pass to Andrew Bynum for a two-handed slam, Fisher setting up Gasol in open space in the lane with a bounce pass, Artest posting up Odom for a bounce pass to Gasol or Bryant making a jump pass to Bynum and Gasol, the Lakers all remained aware of the team's spacing and rhythm on the court. There was exemplary ballhandling. The Lakers finished with only four turnovers, the exact recipe they needed to avoid New Orleans scoring in transition, tempting the Lakers to further rush the offense and exacerbating any frustration level. There was defense. Yes, they had breakdowns and lapses as described above. But there was focus on the hustle plays I already mentioned involving Artest and Fisher. Focus on the Lakers holding New Orleans to 16 first-quarter points to help make them feel in control of the game even when the outcome was never set in stone. And focus on the Lakers holding the Hornets to one field in the final 3:05 of the game.
Those are the reasons why the Lakers left New Orleans on Saturday night with smiles on their faces, the product of a team effort that needs to be replicated the rest of the trip.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant applauds the efforts of his teammates against New Orleans during the second half Saturday night. Credit: Chuck Cook / Associated Press