Lakers treat 102-84 victory over New Orleans Hornets with businesslike attitude
After placing his shoes by his locker, Lakers guard Derek Fisher walked past the television and shot a glance at the screen.
The Memphis Grizzlies were seconds away from securing an upset victory Sunday over the San Antonio Spurs, the team with the NBA's best record that seemed destined to have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. But Fisher didn't flinch for one second. He simply walked past the monitor and headed toward the exit. There was a game to play.
Three hours later, the significance of San Antonio's loss came into perspective. The Lakers' 102-84 victory Sunday night over the New Orleans Hornets reduced the gap for first place in the Western Conference to four games and secured a one-game lead for the second spot over the Dallas Mavericks, which clinched their fourth consecutive victory with a win Sunday over the Phoenix Suns. Those that want to bristle at Fisher's one-of-eight shooting from the field against New Orleans should've been at Staples Center before the game where Lakers executive Magic Johnson stood in a nearby corridor adjacent to the Lakers' locker room. One by one, several Lakers filed out of that side entrance, including Ron Artest, Derrick Caracter and Lamar Odom. Each of them shared handshakes and brief small talk with the Lakers' Hall of Famer. Johnson reserved a more elaborate conversation for Fisher, however.
Expressing delight over a column penned by The Times' T.J. Simers that explained in great detail Fisher's value to the team, Johnson summed up his sentiments this way: "It said what needed to be said." Fisher smiled, nodded his head and walked away, before turning around and saying, "there's only one stat that matters," the obvious reference to his five NBA championships.
That's why it is fitting that the Lakers maintained a similar detachment to the latest ebbs and flows after improving their mark to 15-1 after the All-Star break. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson spent part of his postgame news conference pointing out the reserves squandering a double-digit lead for the third consecutive game and Carl Landry's 24 points. Those are all afterthoughts compared to how the Lakers' size advantage in Pau Gasol (23 points on nine-of-14 shooting and 16 rebounds), Andrew Bynum (13 points on five-of-six shooting) and Lamar Odom (eight points, four-of-six shooting) proved too overwhelming for the Hornets, which recently lost their leading scorer and second-best rebounder in David West to a season-ending left anterior cruciate ligament injury.
Even so, Jackson even went to say the Hornets' 17-13 effort on the offensive boards would give him cause for concern should the Lakers meet up with New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs. But that's just one example of Jackson ratcheting up the expectations as he hopes the team can sustain its consistency once the postseason approaches.
"I hope we can play as we've played tonight defensively and come back [Thursday] against Dallas," Jackson said.
After all, Johnson acknowledged he's more worried about the Lakers meeting Portland in the first round because of the two teams' familiarity and the Trail Blazers have won nine of their last 11 games at the Rose Garden. Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons argued sweeping the regular-season series against New Orleans would strongly derail its confidence should the Lakers host them in the first round. And even if the Lakers remain split on the ability to earn top seeding over San Antonio, all acknowledge the importance of securing home-court advantage over the Dallas Mavericks.
Still, the Lakers expressed more importance in their play itself than how it affects their standing in the West.
"We're motivated about winning," Bryant said. "It doesn't matter to us whether we catch them or not. We try to win every game. If we catch them, so be it. If we don't, so be it."
There's plenty of areas the Lakers should like. Bryant scored 30 points on 11-of-25 shooting, marking the third consecutive game he's scored above his season average, a stretch Jackson said Bryant has played "more aggressively." That's why Bryant couldn't help but laugh when informed that his sprained left ankle remains listed on the team's game notes. "I think I'll manager," he said with a smile.
Bryant's body movement and overall play suggested he can. He noticed a double team coming and switched directions for a fadeaway bank shot in the second quarter. Bryant also went one-on-one against former teammate Trevor Ariza in a sequence that perfectly captured his strong footwork. He jabbed right, drove left into the lane and then banked a shot falling down, giving the Lakers a 92-83 lead with 2:28 remaining.
"Just getting into playoff mode," Bryant said.
In addition to Gasol's efficiency, Bynum maintained the same aggressiveness despite picking up five fouls. When he picked up his last foul with the Lakers leading 78-70 with 9:37 remaining, Jackson summoned Bynum over informing him he'd stay in the game and to remain aggressive, both said afterward. Bynum followed suit, scoring seven of the team's next nine points on plays that indicated his clear advantage in the post. He followed his dunk that gave the Lakers an 85-74 lead with six minutes remaining by performing a chin up on the rim. When New Orleans forward Aaron Gray attempted to shut him off baseline, Bynum jabbed twice and then pivoted to this left to convert on a seven-foot hook shot, extending the lead to 87-76 with 5:07 left.
"I wasn't in foul trouble. I don't think I committed any fouls tonight," Bynum said, joking. "At that point [in picking up the fifth foul], I was just thinking to go hard. If I get a foul, it's to be expected. Luckily, some good things happened."
And defensively, the Lakers' points allowed against New Orleans nearly mirrored the 87 points a game they yielded through the first 14 games following the All-Star break. They held the Hornets to 40.2% mark from the field, a clip that also pointed to them missing open shots. Chris Paul also finished with a non-descript 10 points and nine assists, thanks to constant switching and communicating on screen-and-roll plays, though Jackson conceded he may be holding back for the playoffs.
Jackson had little praise, however, regarding the bench, which was yanked in favor of the starters with exception to Blake and Odom as they nursed an 87-76 lead with 5:07 remaining. Considering the Lakers held as much as an 18-point lead, Jackson sent a clear message he'll favor performance over pacing the minutes of his starters.
"We may not be particularly happy with our play, but we're definitely getting better," said Brown, who finished with eight points on four-of-10 shooting.
It's debatable whether that's actually a long-term concern since Jackson will play the starters heavier minutes once the playoffs begin. Case in point, moments after Bryant and Brown acknowledged the reserves' poor performance, they broke out in smiles when recounting Browns' second-quarter dunk that involved switching the ball in his hands in mid-flight.
The happiness over Brown's dunk and, more importantly, the Lakers' recent winning were all met with the proper dose of perspective. It appeared similar to how Fisher reacted when first realizing the Spurs' loss gave the Lakers a chance to close the gap in the standings. There's too much basketball to play to allow anything good or bad to consume their single-minded focus in ensuring a three-peat.
"We feel good about the way we're playing, but there's not a sense of accomplishment for winning a lot of regular season games at this point," Fisher said. "We obviously love winning more than losing, but I don't think we're patting ourselves on the back necessarily for having a good stretch right now. However, we finish this season, it's for naught if we don't go into the postseason we need to go into it and win a title."
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Photos: (Top) Lakers center Andrew Bynum hangs on the rim after dunking against the Hornets on Sunday. (Bottom): Forwards Lamar Odom of the Lakers and Carl Landry of the Hornets can't control a rebound during the game Sunday. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times