Looking at how the Lakers would match up with New Orleans in the playoffs
Fumbling with his cracked cellphone as he sat by his locker, Lakers forward Ron Artest appeared to have been tuning out my question about the New Orleans Hornets.
His eyes then lit up when I informed him that the Hornets had lost forward David West, the team's leading scorer and second-best rebounder, to a season-ending left anterior cruciate ligament injury.
"New Orleans is not going to make the playoffs," Artest said on first instinct. He quickly backed away from that comment when I informed him that the Hornets (42-31) still hold a two-game lead over Memphis for the seventh playoff spot, setting up a possible first-round matchup with the Lakers (52-20). But the thought couldn't escape Artest. As he continued staring at his phone, Artest repeatedly asked about West's injury and whether it would cost him the rest of the season. When informed that it would, Artest said nothing until the questions shifted to other topics.
It's not entirely definitive whether Artest's initial prediction will ring true. The Lakers and Hornets have 10 and nine games left, respectively, to determine where exactly they fall in the playoff pecking order. But it's only natural to look ahead to a possible Lakers-Hornets series, especially considering they square off Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at Staples Center in what will be the fourth regular-season meeting.
It's almost instinctive for coaches and athletes to brush off such questions, with the playoff seedings still up in the air. The Lakers hold a one-game lead over Dallas for second place in the Western Conference and center Andrew Bynum contends they still have a shot to unseat San Antonio (57-15), who owns a five-game lead over the Lakers. Said Bynum: "We want to win the rest of the season and make a legitimate push for the No. 1 seed."
Meanwhile, Portland (42-30), New Orleans (42-31), Memphis (40-33) and Houston (38-34) are all fighting for the sixth, seventh and eighth playoff seeds. Even with all those scenarios still undetermined, however, Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons acknowledged he started putting together a playoff specific scouting report on New Orleans about a week and a half ago.
"They need some positive energy," Cleamons said of New Orleans, which has lost to the Lakers in all three games this season. "We need to send a message: 'No you can't. We beat you 4-0 in the regular season.' Hopefully we can make this a shortened playoff by doing the same thing. It's very difficult to beat a team four times in a row."
The outcomes have varied.
The Lakers' 103-88 victory Dec. 29 at New Orleans featured Bynum's return to the starting lineup, Lamar Odom's return to the bench and Kobe Bryant appearing in a happier mood after blasting his team's recent performance following a Christmas Day loss to Miami. The result: The Lakers dominated with their inside presence (Bynum, Odom and Pau Gasol combined for 55 points) and a balanced backcourt (Bryant's 20 points on eight-of-14 shooting coincided with Derek Fisher, Artest and Steve Blake each shooting at least 50%).
And even if the Lakers couldn't secure their 101-95 victory Feb. 5 until the final minute, a full team effort in late-game plays still remained impressive. Bryant and 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. Meanwhile, Odom made a crucial put-back to give the Lakers a 97-92 lead with 2:40 remaining, Artest contributed three blocks and three steals and Fisher's two steals and numerous charges helped spark energy on the other end.
The Hornets have clearly had trouble with the Lakers under any scenario this season. That challenge only only magnifies with West's absence.
"That's a key ingredient to their team," Coach Phil Jackson said of West. "It puts a big hole in their lineup. But teams have fought back from situations like that and survived."
New Orleans has handled plenty of uncertainty. The league purchased the team from owners George Shinn and Gary Chouest, who were in financial trouble, in December. Chris Paul's future with the team before the season remained in question, highlighted by his reported comments at Carmelo Anthony's wedding that he'd like to team up with him and Amare Stoudemire. And the Hornets played through plenty of pendulum swings, including a 12-1 start to the season and a 4-8 stretch in February. And now West's injury.
The Lakers aren't minimizing the injury, but they expressed confidence that Carl Landry could fill his spot. By giving the Lakers fits during his time with Houston and Sacramento, Landry received praise from Jackson and Odom on his mid-range jumper, versatility, offensive rebounding and footwork. Jackson said the scouting report on Landry's 19-point performance Friday against Phoenix concluded he possessed a similar skill set to West, prompting Cleamons to mention how fortunate the Hornets were for acquiring him Feb. 22 from Sacramento for Marcus Thornton. Still, Landry even acknowledged it will be hard to consistently sustain the effort he produced against Phoenix.
"Nothing is going to change," Odom said, "as far as how we play and defend guys."
Still, Cleamons stressed the Lakers would need to remain flexible on defense. He envisions New Orleans mostly opting to go small, with a lineup featuring Paul, Marco Bellinelli, Jarrett Jack and Willie Green so that the Lakers would have to shift out more toward the perimeter instead of staying near the basket. With New Orlean likely giving Emeka Okafur a heavy load so Bynum and Gasol can't just have a field day, Cleamons remains more concerned with how the Lakers would react to the shifting lineup combinations than actually guarding Paul.
"I love our matchup with Fish on him," Cleamons said. "He's determined enough and pragmatic. He understands it's a good chess match with Chris' flair and ability to move the basketball and Fisher's determination and willpower to stay in front of him to make him work for everything he gets."
That means the Lakers' new defensive scheme that emphasizes funneling those speedy guards toward the team's frontline will surely be tested. Even if that new philosophy was just put into place this year, Cleamons imagines former Laker Trevor Ariza will be more familiar with that scheme than anyone else.
"He knows we like to pack the paint and stop guys from coming into our lane," Cleamons said of Ariza. "I wouldn't be surprised if he lowers his head, tries to get us in here and make us commit and then kick the ball out to open shooters. He knows we want to cover the lane."
These are all manageable concerns, but Cleamons cautioned, "We've still got our work cut out for us," citing the Hornets' fourth-ranked defense (93.38 points per game). That work will become much easier, however, with a Lakers regular-season sweep.
-- Mark Medina
E-mail the Lakers blog at email@example.com
Top photo: Lakes guard Kobe Bryant pulls up for a jumper over the double-team defense of Hornets center DJ Mbenga and guard Willie Green in the Lakers' 101-95 Feb. 5 against New Orleans. Credit: Misty McElroy / Reuters
Bottom photo: Power forward Pau Gasol, who led the team with 34 points on 13-of-17 shooting, leaves the court at New Orleans Arena after the Lakers defeated the Hornets, 101-95, on Feb. 5to start a seven-game trip. Credit: Derick E. Hingle / US Presswire