Five things to watch in Game 5 of the Lakers-Hornets series
1. How will the Lakers respond to pressure? As much as I believe the Lakers play roulette in making things more competitive than necessary, the team's 2-2 tie with New Orleans entering Game 5 Tuesday at Staples Center isn't anything out of the norm. Consider that many of the Lakers' championship seasons featured playoff series that pushed L.A. to the brink of elimination.
That included the 2000 championship team, which won in five games against Sacramento in the first round and defeated Portland in seven games in the Western Conference Finals. The 2002 title team featured a seven-game West Finals series against the Kings that ended in the Lakers winning at Arco Arena. Remember that 2009 championship when the Lakers went all seven games in the Western Conference semifinals against Houston despite the Rockets having Yao Ming, Dikembe Mutumbo and Tracy McGrady on the injured list? Yeah, Ron Artest does, seeing the Lakers finally eliminate his Rockets en route to an NBA title. And it was only last season when the Lakers went six games in the first round against Oklahoma City, only to finish as defending champions.
"They seem to play better when they're in a desperate mode," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "There's no doubt about that. We've had times in the season where we do the job we're required to do."
The Lakers simply thrive in adverse situations. It's not a good attitude to have and the margin for error decreases every single season. The Lakers aren't at that point yet but Game 5 marks a time when it's safe to presume that the Lakers will bring fuller intensity. Seatgeek.com reports courtside seats are running as high as $1,069 and that tickets overall are averaging $210 a pop, while StubHub says the Lakers-Hornets game is the bestselling game of the week. So it's safe to presume the atmosphere will be more electric than normal. Besides, the Lakers are 26-7 in Game 5 when their best-of-seven series was tied at 2-2, and they even overcame two 3-2 deficits after losing Game 5, including the 2010 NBA Finals to Boston and the 2002 Western Conference Finals to Sacramento.
2. How will Kobe Bryant's ankle look? That's the main area of concern and will have the most significant impact on the game. Jackson expects Bryant will play but it's unpredictable how well, especially since Bryant's refusal to have an MRI and X-rays on his sprained left ankle makes it hard to gauge how that will limit Bryant on the floor.
"It' s a game-time thing, who knows?" Jackson said of Bryant, who had limited participation in Tuesday's morning shoot-around.
Given Bryant's amazing ability to play through nearly any injury, his teammates are correctly presuming No. 24 will be in full uniform. But the Lakers should prepare as if they're going to need to compensate for any limitations they might have.
The responsibility falls on everyone on the team, but forward Pau Gasol should be ready to assume the lead role. Given his deferential nature and overall inconsistency, it's hard to say whether he's up for the task.
"I think he'll play no matter what, regardless," Gasol said. "I'm not thinking about anything else. If there's an injury, guys will step up. I've led many of my teams so I wouldn't have a problem at all. But that's hypothetical."
3. The Lakers can't stop Chris Paul, but they can at least contain him.
It's likely that Bryant's health limitations won't allow him to solely concentrate on guarding Paul, much like the way he did in Game 2 where he held the Hornets' guard to 20 points on five-of-11 shooting and nine assists, a severe drop-off from the 33 points and 14 assists he posted in Game 1. So the Lakers have to compensate in minimizing his production another way.
As tempting as it is to say Derek Fisher simply needs to improve his quickness or that the Lakers need to match up Paul with Steve Blake, the most egregious problem points to the team's constant need to switch. That's resulted in Gasol and Andrew Bynum in separate instances guarding Paul one on one at the top of the key, a disastrous outcome waiting to happen. Instead, the Lakers should refuse to switch and funnel Paul out toward the basket so the Lakers' front line can block his shot. Jackson says Paul's production simply points to him being unstoppable at times, but the Lakers can surely minimize some of that.
"We're paying attention to Chris Paul and he's making big plays and will make big plays," Jackson said. "But those type of things, we're not going to worry about that. We're going to worry about the things we can do something about."
4. The Lakers need to stop production from Carl Landry and Trevor Ariza
Time and time again, Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons reiterated to his team that the Lakers need to force Landry and Ariza into being jumpshooters instead of allowing them to drive to the basket. The message didn't carry through, however, as Landry and Ariza combined for 35 points on 14-of-28 shooting.
Bryant's given Ariza too much space to drive baseline, while Gasol's given Landry too much wiggle room to establish a post presence. It may be necessary to match up Ron Artest on Ariza and Bynum on Landry, but the Lakers can collectively make sure they're not driving to the basket by communicating on rotations.
"It's like I'm the teacher and they're the teenager and they know it all until it happens," Cleamons said. "You don't want to say I told you so. We all want to win so I take the good and the bad and get off my soapbox and watch the film and show it to them. Hopefully they take it to heart."
5. The Lakers need an inside presence
Forum Blue and Gold's Darius Soriano ran an interesting statistical analysis through NBA.com's Stats Cube that shows the Lakers are more defensively efficient when Bynum is on the floor and more offensively efficient when Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are on the floor. It's an interesting tradeoff the Lakers balance every night, but for the most part it nets a positive gain because of the cross-matches and size difference the Lakers present.
There's no reason the Lakers should be struggling against the Hornets, which features Aaron Gray, Landry and an absent David West. Part of the problem points to the fact that the Lakers didn't pass the ball enough inside as indicated by the combined 19 field-goal attempts between Bynum and Gasol. The Lakers getting outrebounded 39 to 32 and conceding 20 second-chance points, however, points to the front line's lack of aggressiveness.
-- Mark Medina
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Top photo: Kobe Bryant is forced into an awkward shot, and a miss, by Hornets defenders Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor during Game 4 on Sunday night at New Orleans Arena. Bryant did not score in the first half and finished with 17 points in the 93-88 loss. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / April 24, 2011
Bottom photo: Bryant hobbles down the court after injuring his left ankle while playing defense on New Orleans' Willie Green in the fourth quarter of Game 4 on Sunday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / April 24, 2011