Five story lines to watch in Lakers-Hornets matchup
Game 1: Sunday at Staples Center/12:30 p.m./ABC
Game 2 – Wednesday at Staples Center/7:30 p.m. TNT / FS West
Game 3 – Friday at New Orleans / 6:30 p.m. ESPN / KCAL9
Game 4 – Sunday, April 24, at New Orleans / 6:30 p.m. TNT / KCAL9
Game 5 * Tuesday, April 26, at Staples Center / TBD TBD / FS West
Game 6 * Thursday, April 28, at New Orleans / TBD TBD / KCAL9
Game 7 * Saturday, April 30, at Staples Center TBD TNT / FS West
1. How healthy will the Lakers be? There are plenty of encouraging signs. After Lakers center Andrew Bynum hyperextended his right knee Tuesday against San Antonio, his MRI the next day revealed he simply has a bone bruise and should be ready to play in Game 1 of the Lakers-Hornets first-round series Sunday at 12:30 p.m. After experiencing soreness in his surgically repaired right knee, Lakers forward Matt Barnes also had an MRI on Wednesday and results "showed no new damage," according to the team, and is expected to suit up. Lakers guard Steve Blake is out an indefinite amount of time because of the chicken pox. With exception to Blake's illness, the Lakers are fortunate the injuries to Bynum and Barnes aren't considered as serious and the Lakers' first-round schedule ensures they'll have plenty of time to rest. But anyone knows it's best to take a cautious outlook on anything connected to Bynum, injuries and timetable because all of his injuries have entailed lengthy recovery times and limitations and all initial estimations have always proven to be wrong.
2. Will the Lakers' early-season success against New Orleans help or hurt them? I'll go into detail in the three categories below on where the Lakers have the most noticeable advantages against New Orleans. But here's the main thing you need to know: The Lakers swept the Hornets, 4-0, in the regular-season series. Two of their victories came in double-digit margins. Two of them came within single digits. But never was the outcome in doubt. Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons, who started putting together a playoff specific scouting report on New Orleans about a month ago, told me that sweeping them should really derail the Hornets' confidence. No doubt, the Lakers have favored a pretty good draw, considering their regular-season success against the Hornets and the many reasons why some on the Lakers considered Memphis and Portland to be a more difficult matchup.
It remains unseen whether the Lakers will actually take advantage of this scenario. They ended the season with a five-game losing streak followed by two awfully underachieving performances against the Spurs without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and a sub-.500 team in Sacramento. As easy as it is to say the Lakers will turn it up for the playoffs, it's conceivable that mind set won't trickle in right away. The Lakers acknowledged last year's first-round series against the Thunder forced them to wake up for the playoffs because it proved such a daunting task keeping up with Oklahoma City's youth and athleticism. If the Lakers feel like they can coast against the Hornets, who have by all accounts overachieved this season under first-year head coach Monty Williams, that may not be a good thing considering they've often shown they're mostly externally motivated.
3. The Lakers' size advantage will prove to be too much. That's usually the case against most opponents. Besides Kobe Bryant's tremendous talent, scoring ability and hunger, the Lakers have one distinguishable advantage that no other NBA team has in having two seven-footers in Bynum and Pau Gasol. Add versatile, 6-foot-10-inch swingman Lamar Odom and the Lakers prove hard to stop. But this will definitely be a deflator against New Orleans, who won't have David West because of a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury. Even though the Lakers have always been impressed with Carl Landry, that won't offset the Lakers' size advantage. Emeka Okafur has not matched up well with the Lakers so it's integral the Lakers use their bigs. That effort has always proven to be a mixed bag for reasons varying from Bryant taking over, Gasol and Bynum lacking aggressiveness and everyone else firing outside shots. Of course, Bynum's health hinges on how well the Lakers do in this area. But it's not going to be rocket science playing New Orleans. Pound the ball inside and let them go to work.
4. The Hornets' biggest threat involves Chris Paul. This isn't a can-Derek Fisher-keep-up-with-a-speedy-guard debate. The answer has always been no, but so is the rest of the league. Fisher deserves credit for his tenacity in fighting through screens and calling out rotations, even if he gets beat off the dribble. But this where the Lakers' defensive scheme comes in, which has emphasized funneling drivers into the lane. The Lakers' improved discipline coupled with Bynum's resurgence on the rebounds largely contributed to their 17-1 start after the All-Star break. Paul will get his points and prove hard to stop, but the Lakers can minimize the damage if they remained disciplined in following the scheme and communicating effectively.
5. Trevor Ariza will try to bait Bryant into taking over. Ariza surely has a chip on his shoulder ever since his departure from the Lakers in the 2009 off season, so there's no question he has extra motivation from this series. Another thing the Lakers should keep in mind is he's very familiar with the Lakers' offense and knows the most effective way to guarding Bryant isn't by trying to stop him, but hoping to bait him into taking difficult shots. Bryant will crank up the intensity and aggressiveness come playoff time, but it'll be interesting to see how effective Ariza proves in goading him.
Prediction: Lakers in five. The Lakers should have no problem winning this series. The only reason the Lakers will lose one game is the inevitability that they might coast in one of the games. My hunch is Game 3, when the Hornets will feel like they're in a must-win situation, are at home and the Lakers no longer feel the urgency in setting the tone for the series.
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Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum hangs on the rim after dunking against the Hornets earlier this season. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times