Hornets-Lakers Preview

After three straight trips to the NBA finals, there are few
playoff predicaments the Los Angeles Lakers haven’t already
escaped. Just last spring, they were in the same jam they currently
face: tied at 2 in a first-round playoff series against a young,
hungry opponent.

Oklahoma City had the Lakers two games away from a shocking
first-round elimination last year before they pulled much the same
escape they’re hoping to make against New Orleans this week.

”We’re in the same position, as far as being tied,” said Pau
Gasol, the Lakers’ fourth-leading scorer in the series with 12.3
points per game while making a team-worst 39.5 percent of his
shots. ”We just have to make sure we come out and get Game 5 as we
did in the past, because we know how important it is.”

When the two-time champions face that pivotal first-round Game 5
against New Orleans on Tuesday night at Staples Center, they’ll
have to draw from their expansive well of postseason experience
just to keep moving forward on the brutal drive toward a
threepeat.

The Lakers still haven’t drained that well, but their task gets
a bit tougher each time they have to go there to find the energy
necessary to finish off contenders.

”They certainly play better when they’re in a desperate mode,
there’s no doubt about that,” coach Phil Jackson said after
Monday’s workout at the Lakers’ training complex. ”They were
somber. They understand the nature of we to have to do with this
ballclub.”

Sure, the Lakers have been here before while playing 67
postseason games over the previous three years. But the dilemma
posed by the Hornets is unique.

For one thing, few players in recent playoff years have carved
up the Lakers’ defense as thoroughly as Chris Paul is doing it in
this series. Paul, who destroyed Los Angeles with 33 points and 14
assists in Game 1, is averaging 25.5 points, 11.5 assists and 7
rebounds per game after putting up the first triple-double ever
posted against the Lakers in 712 playoff games during New Orleans’
win in Game 4.

For another, Kobe Bryant is limping on a sprained left ankle
that might be a bit more serious than the countless injuries he has
managed through in the past few seasons. After getting ice and
massage during the Lakers’ flight home, which landed about 3:30
a.m. local time Monday, he refused any further treatment,
preferring to head into Game 5 without knowing the full extent of
his latest injury.

”He says he’ll play,” Jackson said of Bryant, who didn’t speak
to reporters Monday. ”He won’t let them deal with it. … Doesn’t
matter, he’s going to play tomorrow. That’s his attitude.”

Jackson also said Paul isn’t the biggest problem faced by the
Lakers, who have all but conceded they can’t shut down the
four-time All-Star point guard. Their game plan increasingly
focuses on slowing down Paul’s teammates – a tactic that didn’t
work in Game 4.

”We’re bothered by (Trevor) Ariza and (Carl) Landry,” Jackson
said. ”We’re paying attention to Chris Paul, and he’s make big
plays. We’re not worried about that. We’re worried about something
we can do something about.”

The Hornets have remained humble about their upstart run at the
Lakers after stumbling into the playoffs and losing leading scorer
David West to a season-ending injury. Yet two victories in four
games have built a fire of confidence under New Orleans, which is
drafting off the remarkable pace set by its star point guard.

Paul has accumulated his own share of injuries, including a
nasty cut near his right eye, but teammate Jarrett Jack knows the
Hornets can count on him.

”He’s tough as nails,” Jack said of his boyhood friend. ”The
only way he’s not going to play is if he can’t breathe. Nothing is
going to keep him out of the game. It’s the same as Kobe. You saw
him. He could barely walk, and he was yelling at Phil (Jackson) for
taking him out the game. If you want to be that guy in this league,
that’s what you have to do.”

Paul lavished postgame praise on Ariza, the former Lakers
forward who scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half of Game 4
while holding Bryant scoreless on defense.

”He was unbelievable,” Paul said of Ariza, who won the 2009
title with Los Angeles. ”I told him after the game I fed off of
his energy. I might have had four points in the first half, but he
single-handedly kept us in the game. It’s hard enough to run around
with Kobe. For him to be out there to score, he was doing it
all.”

The Lakers are familiar with best-of-three finishes to their
playoff series: Three of their four postseason series last year
were tied after four games, as were two series during their initial
title run in 2009.

The Lakers prevailed every time – but that doesn’t mean it gets
any easier to do it, point guard Derek Fisher notes.

”If you could just play the way you want to every time you go
out there, there would be more teams that have done what we’re
trying to do,” Fisher said.