LOS ANGELES — The Lakers won their third in a row Tuesday night, beating the New Orleans Hornets, 111-106. There’s no arguing that this is a much better Lakers team than it was just six days ago, with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash switching roles and Dwight Howard playing with a renewed enthusiasm.
However, you can’t argue this point: The Lakers still have quite a ways to go to turn around their season.
Yes, the Hornets are a better team (9-7) since Eric Gordon returned from multiple knee injuries Dec. 29, and yes, they beat the Grizzlies in Memphis on Sunday. But they’re still a miserable 15-30 and tied with the Phoenix Suns at the bottom of the Western Conference. They’ll be the Pelicans before they see the playoffs again, but the Lakers couldn’t put them away.
Even fighting for their playoff lives, the Lakers just can’t stand prosperity.
It looked like they were going to run the Hornets right back to New Orleans as they shared the basketball beautifully and ended up with a season-high 34 assists leading to 39 makes. They built an 18-point lead—98-80—in the fourth quarter, but proceeded to lose their concentration and let the Hornets right back in the game.
Behind the shooting of Ryan Anderson, who hit two 3-pointers and scored 11 points, N.O. went on a dazzling 16-2 run in 2 1/2 minutes to cut the lead to one. But Earl Clark scored inside and Steve Nash buried a 3-pointer with just more than a minute left to play to put away the game.
Coach Mike D’Antoni was happy with the win, but not happy with his team’s performance.
“We shut it down too early,” he said. “Actually, I thought we shut it down in the second half. You can’t do that with a team that shoots 3s like they do. We were scoring a lot, and we get the tendency to think we’re just going to outscore them the rest of the way. We almost paid for that.”
But they didn’t, thanks to a great game by Howard, who had 24 points, five steals, four blocks and four rebounds, and the remarkable Clark, who at times was the 13th man on a 12-man roster. He finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds and four assists., including the layup that turned the momentum back to the Lakers after they’d blown the big lead.
“It’s great to get a win, no matter how you get it,” Clark said. “We did let up on defense and turned the ball over, but we stayed with it and came away with the win.”
Bryant’s emergence as the Lakers’ primary distributor continued Tuesday with 11 more assists, giving him 39 in three games, the most he has ever had in a three-game stretch.
“Well (the facilitator role), it’s working pretty well,” Bryant said with a laugh. “I just get my guys lined up in the right places and get them the ball.
“(Having two players) who can move the ball is great, because it always keeps the other team a few steps behind, which is really helpful. It’s good for us emotionally because it’s working, and they don’t have any idea where the ball is coming from or where it’s going.”
Now the Lakers head to Phoenix for the first of their seven-game “Grammy trip” on Wednesday night. Pau Gasol said the timing of the Lakers turnaround is just right.
“We finally realized that we had to start playing for each other, not just for ourselves,” said Gasol, who had seven points, seven rebounds and seven assists against the Hornets. “We stopped worrying who was getting how many shots and started looking to play better defense and play for the team goals, not individual goals. Sometime we still have lapses, but we have started to turn it around. Now we just have to keep it going on the road.”
Notes: Anderson finished with 16 points off the bench, including three 3-pointers. Gordon had 25, 16 in the first half. Antawn Jamison had another strong game off the bench for L.A. with 16 points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes. Backup point guard Steve Blake returned to the team after being out due to abdominal surgery. He finished with two points and four assists in 13 minutes.
1. Kudos to the Lakers players for their willingness to subvert their egos and concentrate on team goals. With four potential Hall of Famers on the roster, that’s a lot of ego to keep under control. But ego in those players isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s what drives Bryant, Nash, Howard and Gasol to be great, but sometimes it’s impossible for great players to buy into the “team first” concept — especially when there’s always internal competition (usually friendly) — going on between the stars. But I think the Lakers players finally got tired of being humiliated on the court and benched or dropped from the rotation by D’Antoni, so they made the commitment to have each other’s back. Even though it’s only three games, it has been an impressive start to what they hope will be a run toward a championship.
2. They’ve accomplished very little, however, until they become a winner on the road. They have been absolutely pathetic away from Staples Center, winning just five of 20 games and they head out on the “Grammy trip” having lost their past seven road games. At 5-15, they’re tied with Charlotte for the sixth-worst road record in the NBA.
3. The Hornets are a better team than their record shows, but they were never able to overcome the early-season loss of Gordon. Coach Monty Williams has his young team playing hard on every possession, and it seems as if they disrupt a lot of plays with their defensive effort. With young stars like Gordon, future stars like Anthony Davis and a roster full of talented, hard-nosed players like Anderson, the Hornets should be a solid playoff contender in the next couple of years. Williams expects a lot from his players, and it looks like he’s beginning to get it on a more consistent basis. If they’d had a healthy Gordon all season, their playoff run might be happening right now.