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Lakers show improvement with their inside presence against New Orleans

April 27, 2011 | 10:59 pm

61174109After converting on a right hook, Lakers forward Pau Gasol pumped his fist. After converting on an inside lob, Lakers center Andrew Bynum flexed his muscles. And after the Hornets surprisingly owned the advantage inside for most of the series, both Gasol and Bynum finally fought back with increased aggressiveness.

The Lakers' 106-90 Game 5 victory Tuesday over the New Orleans Hornets assuaged concerns for reasons besides retaking control of the series and Kobe Bryant still managing to play through pain with a sprained left ankle. It took four games longer than it should have, but Game 5 also featured the Lakers finally showcasing their superior size advantage against the Hornets in a physical nature, a quality not usually attached to the defending champions.

"We should play like that all the time," Gasol said after posting 16 points on six-of-12 shooting, eight rebounds and three blocks. "[Game 5] was a game we needed to play physical, control the boards and use our bodies."

The increased aggressiveness helped the Lakers secure the victory in so many ways. First things first, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson argued the team's 22-2 advantage in second-chance points proved to be the main variable that gave the Lakers a 3-2 series lead and a chance to close out the series Thursday in Game 6 at New Orleans. But there were plenty of other factors that helped the Lakers' cause. The Lakers outrebounded the Hornets 42-25, caused Emeka Okafor to get five fouls and Gasol, Bynum and Lamar Odom combined for 51 points.

Suddenly, Hornets Coach Monty Williams changed course from criticizing the Lakers' front line in staying in the lane too long to them playing too dirty.  

"There was more focus to be physical tonight and I know you guys saw it," Williams said after Game 5. "A lot of it, it's just not basketball. So, it's just one of those things we have to recognize and withstand and kind of play and overcome it."

Of course, this is all part of the gamesmanship that exists in most playoff series, with Lakers Coach Phil Jackson also accusing the Hornets of throwing illegal screens. It's not so much important as who's right and who's wrong because both coaches have points, but it's a good thing for the Lakers that Williams is griping about them playing too physical than praising his own frontline in Carl Landry, Emeka Okafor and Aaron Gray for overcoming the absence of David West (season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury), beating the Lakers in points in the paint, rebounds and second-chance points and proving their four regular-season losses didn't have a psychological affect during the playoffs.

The disparity between the regular-season matchups against the New Orleans and the playoffs are at least head scratching and at most embarrassing between Gasol (22.2 points on 70.5% shooting and 12.8 rebounds, 13.1 points on 41.8% shooting and 6.6 rebounds) and Odom (14.5 points on 55.6% shooting and seven rebounds, 11.6 points on 44.4% shooting and 5.6 rebounds). Though Bynum statistically has proven better in the playoff series (15 points on 64.1% shooting and 10 rebounds) than in the regular-season games against New Orleans (14.6 points on 54% shooting and 6.8 rebounds), Bynum lacked the defensive presence that proved instrumental during the Lakers' 17-1 start following the All-Star break. 

That was a different story, however, in Game 5.

"For me, personally, defensively we did a better job, said Bynum, who also contributed 18 points on six-of-11 shooting and 10 rebounds. "We were handling pick and rolls and not giving up on the play."

After ignoring the scouting report from Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons that stressed preventing Landry from driving, Gasol held him to eight points on three of seven shooting. After ignoring pleas that the Lakers needed to avoid switching on Hornets guard Chris Paul and simply funnel him, the team's frontline helped its backcourt holding Paul to four assists in the final three quarters after his eight first-quarter assists tied a Lakers playoff record for an opponent in any quarter. And it all came with more bumps, elbows and bruises than they're accustomed to throwing. But that's a good thing.

"It's pretty interesting because we're not known for that," Jackson said. "We're known to be soft. But sometimes desperation can get teams activated.

--Mark Medina

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Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum goes up for an offensive rebound in front of teammate Pau Gasol as well as Hornets power forward Carl Landry and guard Marco Belinelli in the first half of Game 5 on Tuesday night at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times / April 26, 2011