Lakers' 100-86 Game 3 victory over New Orleans Hornets showed they were in playoff form
The bullet points from his discussion during a timeout Friday night covered typical items that Lakers guard Kobe Bryant ticked off to ESPN sideline reporter Heather Cox, saying, "He talked about execution and minimizing mistakes and playing with the type of intensity and sense of urgency we know how to play with."
Those are all stock answers, but the Lakers lived up to that mantra in various ways and provided myriad examples of how they suddenly looked like a playoff team in their 100-86 Game 3 victory against Hornets in New Orleans.
The significance goes beyond the practical implications of the Lakers' taking a 2-1 series lead and reclaiming home-court advantage. They mostly took care of any and all issues that had plagued them earlier in the series.
1. Bryant returns to scorer mode. After he gave up his scoring in favor of guarding Chris Paul and playing facilitator in Game 2, Bryant assumed his normal role and scored 30 points on 10-for-20 shooting, the 80th time he's scored at least 30 points in a playoff game, trailing only Michael Jordan's 109. The reasons for diminishing his role were twofold -- wanting to throw an adjustment at Paul and hoping his constant passing would jump-start a struggling front line. But Bryant switched roles, since trying to do both would sap his energy level. Bryant's never-ending aggressiveness in setting a tone offensively benefits the Lakers so long as it remains in the context of the offense and his teammates match that aggressiveness, both key variables that help prevent teams from solely fixating on limiting Bryant. But with Bryant enjoying the supporting cast around him, there was very little the Hornets could do to stop him.
2. Pau Gasol improves his shot. It appeared that his earlier struggles in the first two games would continue. But hitting a three-pointer, of all things, and a thunderous dunk off an offensive rebound that wound up not counting because of Carl Landry's foul seemed to ignite his aggressiveness. Gasol's 17 points on seven-for-13 shooting and 10 rebounds marked a big improvement from the four-for-19 shooting in Games 1 and 2 -- but his performance doesn't just serve as a turning point because of his improved shooting mark. He made that happen because he appeared more inclined to strike back when Landry and Aaron Gray put pressure on him. For most of the first half, he settled for tepid mid-range jumpers with no success. The aforementioned dunk seemed to give him confidence that he lacked earlier in the game and earlier in the series.
3. Consistent ball movement made the Lakers unstoppable. There were countless sequences that epitomized the Lakers' offensive fluidity. In the second quarter, Lamar Odom (13 points, nine rebounds) threw a bullet entry pass to Andrew Bynum (14 points, 11 rebounds), who tried converting over a double team. Though his shot hit off the rim, Lakers reserve forward Matt Barnes snuck in and slammed one home off the putback. Bynum returned the favor off Barnes' missed three-pointer moments later, grabbing a rebound, dribbling once and then pulling back for a left-handed hook that gave the Lakers a 38-27 lead. And when Ron Artest missed a fall-away jumper, Gasol grabbed the board and one-timed the ball to Bryant, who quickly drove in and finished with a bank shot.
Plenty of give-and-go sequences also kept the Hornets' defense honest. Gasol's give-and-go to Shannon Brown gave him a high-percentage shot inside. Bynum and Odom shared equal duties setting each other up. And one give-and-go between Gasol and Artest (nine points, four-for-eight shooting) prompted him to flex his biceps.
4. Bynum has a mild scare. As soon as Bynum appears about to turn a corner in his development, injuries happen. It's a routine Lakers fans are accustomed to and still feel cautious optimism as he continues to show how he's becoming the dominant center the Lakers hoped he'd be. Bynum had one of those moments in Game 3 when his knee buckled under him after stepping on Landry's foot. Bynum remained in the game, but most of his production would come in the first half where he finished with 14 points and nine rebounds. In the second half, Bynum recorded only two rebounds.
5. The Lakers improved their defense. The stat line will read that Paul finished with 22 points on nine-for-13 shooting, but Fisher and the team's front line should feel satisfied with how they defended him. Though Paul finished with eight assists, the Lakers also forced him to commit five turnovers, a sure sign that Paul had little supporting cast around him.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant changes direction while driving against New Orleans forward Trevor Ariza in the first half Friday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / April 22, 2011.