Top five stories in Lakers-Hornets series
Soon enough, we'll be getting into the inevitable back and forth between Phil Jackson and Mark Cuban, see if Matt Barnes has anything to say to Jason Terry's argument that Barnes is actually soft, and if there really are any memorable performances in the Lakers-Mavericks matchup, a playoff pairing not seen since the 1988 Western Conference semifinals.
But that doesn't mean I'm moving past the Lakers-Hornets first-round series just yet. There's plenty to analyze regarding individual performances and series-wide trends. Below the jump are what I consider the top five stories surrounding the series.
1. Kobe Bryant playing through a sprained left ankle. That in itself isn't surprising. What was surprising was Bryant's refusal to get an MRI or X-rays, considering his obsession for knowing every single detail about his body so he can make the necessary adjustments. But Bryant's thinking pointed to his concern that it would take too much time out of his day.
Regardless of whether you think he is taking a huge risk or should never be questioned about his injuries, his 19-point performance in Game 5 was the highlight of the series. It wasn't just him taking the court that was impressive. It wasn't that after a scoreless first quarter, he posterized Emeka Okafor in the second quarter and performed a left-handed slam over Carl Landry in the third. It provided the perfect visual for Bryant's dominance despite injuries, and it served as a great turning point in the game.
2. Bryant guarding Chris Paul in Game 2. This proved to be the first adjustment the Lakers made during the series. Paul lighted up the Lakers in Game 1 with 33 points on 11-of-18 shooting and 14 assists. Derek Fisher isn't absolved from blame in not being able to keep up with the speedy guards, but the lapses also pointed to the Lakers' fixation on switching, even if if left Pau Gasol guarding him one-on-one in three separate plays. Bryant guarding Paul helped keep Bryant productive despite a poor shooting night and it forced Paul into tighter spaces as he drove because the Lakers' improved rotation and Bryant's individual defense limited Paul to 20 points on five-of-11 shooting and nine assists.
3. Andrew Bynum made it out of the first round healthy. Amid his consistency during the All-Star break, Bynum and the rest of the team held a collective breath simply because they didn't want to get their hopes up in case Bynum suffered another injury. Bynum even went so far to say that he needs to make it out of the first round without an injury before believing he's turned a corner. Well, now he has. Bynum averaged 15.2 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and didn't cause anyone to get anxious during a fall. During the last part of the regular season there were a few moments Bynum collided knees, with one of them causing a bone bruise. That's why the Lakers weren't sure what he could offer in the first-round series, but all accounts show he's as healthy as can be.
4. Phil Jackson wearing his various championship rings. It's customary for Jackson to wear his most recent championship ring during his team's playoff run, a symbolic reminder of what the goal is and that he knows what it takes to win one. This year, Jackson has switched it up a bit.
“I think I’m starting at the beginning and working all the way through,” Jackson said.
That means he's been wearing a different ring for every game, from starting Game 1 with the his championship ring he won as player with the New York Knicks in the 1972-73 season and then nearly covering the Chicago Bulls' dynasty through Games 2 (1990-91), 3 (1991-92), 4 (1992-93), 5 (1995-96) and 6 (1996-97), meaning he'll start Game 1 of the Lakers-Mavericks series wearing his 1997-98 championship ring with the Chicago Bulls. Jackson had also won a ring with the 1969-1970 New York Knicks team, but he missed the playoffs because he was recovering from spinal fusion surgery.
When the Lakers faced a 2-2 series tie entering Game 5, Jackson joked he might not be able to wear all of his rings as planned because his team would be eliminated too soon. Clearly it's a great motivator to spur the players to push for what would be Jackson's 12th NBA championship as a coach and 14th overall.
5. Matt Barnes getting a mohawk in honor of his late mother. What started out as a bet with his teammates at Golden State in 2007 soon turned into a yearly playoff ritual. He had considered it unlikely the Warriors would make the 2007 postseason, leading him to joke he'd get a mohawk if it happened. So once Golden State matched up with the Dallas Mavericks as an eighth seed, Barnes followed through on his bet with his mother, Ann, providing positive feedback.
The haircut caught a buzz, particularly after the Warriors upset the Mavericks in the first round, with Barnes' mother leading the support. That remains a visible image for Barnes, whose mother died on Nov. 27, 2007, only 26 days after she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. That's why Barnes' Mohawk routine proves to be more than just a playoff ritual.
"It makes me smile more when I think about the haircut," Barnes said. "She loved the haircut and was a part of that experience with us. Her dying shortly after, it was one of her fondest memories of me playing, so it makes me smile a lot more."
-- Mark Medina
Top photo: The Lakers huddle before entering the court at New Orleans Arena on Sunday night before Game 4 of their first-round playoff series against the Hornets. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Bottom photo: Lakers Coach Phil Jackson heads toward the court after calling a timeout during Game 1 at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times