Andrew Bynum used his massive frame to own the lane, Kobe Bryant made timely shots that silenced a hostile crowd, and the Los Angeles Lakers started to look a lot more like a team trying to win a third straight NBA title.
Bryant scored 22 of his 24 points in the first three quarters, then let his teammates take over in a dominant 98-80 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Thursday night that wrapped up a first-round playoff series triumph for Los Angeles in six games.
The performance left coach Phil Jackson saying his current squad has the ”potential to be as good as any team I’ve coached with the Lakers.”
He might have sounded silly saying that after Game 4, when Chris Paul’s triple-double helped the Hornets tie the series at two, but it’s not like championship Lakers teams have never started slow before.
They split their first four playoff games with Oklahoma City last season before winning that series 4-2 and moving on to eventually win the franchise’s 16th NBA title. This time, they turned in convincing double-digit victories in the last two games, winning by 16 on Tuesday night and leading by as much as 21 in the fourth quarter of the series clincher.
”We’re good at making adjustments and learning,” Bryant said. ”So the more a series goes on, the more we learn. That comes from our coaching staff. That comes from us and the amount of experience we have, being able to pick teams apart the later we go in a series.”
The Lakers move on to the second round, facing the Dallas Mavericks, who eliminated Portland in six games. Game 1 will be Monday at Staples Center.
The 7-foot, 285-pound Bynum had 18 points and 12 rebounds, drawing groans from the New Orleans crowd with each of his eight offensive rebounds. His ability to clean up teammates’ misses and extend possessions helped Los Angeles gain a lopsided 21-4 advantage in second-chance points.
”Every time he got an offensive rebound, it was deflating,” Hornets coach Monty Williams said. ”You don’t really realize how good he is until you face him in a series. Kobe’s Kobe, but I thought Bynum decided the series. He was that good.”
Pau Gasol chipped in 16 points and Lamar Odom 14 for the Lakers, whose overpowering fourth quarter provided an anticlimactic ending to what had initially been a more exciting series than many expected — particularly with the Hornets having lost leading scorer David West to a season-ending injury in late March.
Paul, who helped the Hornets split the first four games with two sensational performances, wasn’t able to deliver a third victory. He had only seven points before hitting a 3-pointer with 4:02 to go and finished with 10 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds.
”Once we started missing shots, the lane became filled with Laker jerseys, and to ask Chris to bail us out of a game like that is unfair,” Williams said. ”They’re the champs and they know how to put the pedal to the metal — and they did.”
As they did in Game 5, the Lakers again controlled the paint, outrebounding New Orleans 43-30, including 14 offensive rebounds.
”We just lost to a really, really good team. It’s obvious why they’re the two-time defending champs,” Paul said. ”They did a really good job of closing the lane down. … I still tried to find my spots, but the lane was packed.”
The Lakers led by double digits throughout the fourth quarter, and Williams finally conceded the game with about a minute to go when he removed the starters, who received an appreciative standing ovation from the sellout crowd in the New Orleans Arena.
Carl Landry had 19 points for the Hornets, who have not won a playoff series since the first round in 2008, but who did better than expected this season after Williams took his first head coaching job last summer with a team that had missed the playoffs last season. Trevor Ariza scored 12 points for New Orleans and Marco Belinelli 11.
After falling behind by as many as 12 points in the middle of the third quarter, New Orleans was as close as 54-48 when Jason Smith hit a jumper. But Bryant and Gasol each hit a pair of free throws to get Los Angeles’ lead back to 10, and each time the Hornets tried to claw back after that, the Lakers had an answer.
When Willie Green hit a 3 to make it 60-53, Bryant came right back with a 3 of his own and put his finger to his lips as the crowd quieted again.
Then late in the quarter, Paul lost the ball under his own basket when he bumped into Ron Artest and tumbled over the baseline, hoping to draw a foul. Instead, Artest put in an easy layup and flexed both biceps while the crowd booed the officials in frustration.
The boos continued when Smith fouled Bryant hard on a drive and was called for a flagrant foul. After conspicuously applauding the call, to the annoyance of Hornets fans, Bryant made both free throws, giving the Lakers a 69-57 lead heading into the final quarter.
The Hornets needed a strong start to the fourth quarter and it appeared they might make one more run when Paul promptly found Smith for an open jumper to make it 69-59. Yet the Lakers again denied the Hornets any momentum as Odom responded with a 3 and Bynum scored inside on a possession kept alive by an offensive rebound. That ignited a 9-0 run that made it 78-59 with 8:28 left.
The game was never in doubt after that.
”The size and depth of our team wore them down in the end,” Jackson said. ”It took us a little time to figure out this team.”
Notes: The Lakers hit 25 of 26 free throws. … The Hornets are 1-4 in Game 6s, including 1-2 when they are elimination games. … The Hornets have never won a best-of-seven series that went at least six games. … The Lakers are 73-29 in best-of-seven series. … Bryant has scored in double figures in 155 straight playoff games.