The New Orleans Hornets didn’t expect Pau Gasol to toss up a 3-pointer from the corner any more than the Lakers star’s growing chorus of critics expected him to make it.
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Gasol stunned them all by draining the shot, then scored twice more during a key fourth-quarter surge that helped secure a 100-86 victory Friday night and put Los Angeles in control of the first-round playoff series.
”It’s funny how a shot can kind of turn the momentum around for him when he’s had a hard time making shots around the basket and in the paint — and he knocks down a 3,” said Kobe Bryant, who led the Lakers with 30 points. ”That kind of got him going.”
The win gave the Lakers a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, with Game 4 in New Orleans on Sunday. Just as important, the performance re-established Gasol as one of the Lakers’ primary scoring threats following two poor outings. He finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
”It was just about playing my game and being assertive and being comfortable out there,” Gasol said. ”Don’t try to overthink it. Don’t try to think about the last play. Just try to make the right play. It was a much better game on my part.”
Gasol made only 4 of 19 shots during the first two games of the series and took some blame for the Lakers’ surprising Game 1 loss.
Hornets defenders could have been excused for not closing down on his 3-point attempt; Gasol put up only three shots from deep the entire regular season, making one.
When asked, figuratively, where his 3-point shot came from, Gasol seemed to be still ruffled by the criticism he’s taken recently and uncooperatively responded, ”The corner.”
When a member of the Lakers’ staff later said Gasol had time for two more questions, Gasol added, ”Or none.”
Lakers coach Phil Jackson figured Gasol was bound to start playing better.
”He is just too good a basketball player. He can shoot, he can handle the ball, he can do a lot of things. It’s just a matter of him finding a comfort zone out there,” Jackson said. ”I didn’t expect him to find it out on the 3-point line, but we are not surprised when he makes those shots.”
Andrew Bynum added 14 points and 11 rebounds. He briefly went down holding his right knee, but remained in the game after trainers examined him and then got a rest for most of the fourth quarter. Lamar Odom scored 13 points for the two-time defending champs, who took the lead for good when Ron Artest made a layup as he was fouled to make it 13-10.
Chris Paul had 22 points and eight assist for the Hornets, who managed to stay within single digits for long stretches of the game but never truly threatened to take the lead in the second half.
”They just had a collective effort tonight,” Paul said of the Lakers. ”Everybody pitched in and that’s what we really can’t let them do. … We fought. We played a great first half. It’s just, in the second half it got away from us.”
Bryant’s intensity was evident from the opening minutes when he violently rejected Carl Landry’s attempted close-range shot out of bounds. Soon after, he cut into the lane for a vicious one-handed jam.
Hornets fans’ attempts at booing or heckling him only seemed to help him focus. Hitting on his typical array of demoralizing 3s and off balance jumpers off the glass, he had 15 points in the first half. He didn’t need to take the game over in the second because of Gasol’s emergence, which the Lakers thought was overdue after he averaged only eight points, about 11 below his average, during the first two games of the series.
It was Bryant’s 80th playoff game with at least 30 points, second on the all-time list behind Michael Jordan’s 109.
Although Gasol still didn’t seem quite himself in the first half, when he had four points, he became a factor when it mattered, hitting his momentum-changing 3 that made it 78-70 early in the fourth quarter.
”I was open, so I shot it,” Gasol said. ”It was a good shot.”
Soon after, Gasol added a putback and a soft jumper from the baseline to give Los Angeles an 85-71 lead with 8:36 left, the Lakers’ largest lead to that point.
Paul meanwhile, faded a bit in the second half, when he scored only four points.
While the Lakers made defensive adjustments to keep the ball away from Paul, the Hornets’ All-Star guard said, ”I blame myself because I don’t care if they deny.”
”I can’t let them do that,” Paul continued. ”I’ve got to get my shots. I’ve got to be more aggressive and not allow them to take me out.”
The Lakers wound up cruising with a double-digit lead for much of the fourth quarter in the most convincing performance of the series by either team. If the Hornets are unable to bounce back in Game 4, which Paul described as ”definitely a must-win,” the Lakers could close out the series at home in Game 5 on Tuesday night.
Certainly, the Hornets will need better production from their bench, which was a major factor in their surprising Game 1 triumph but accounted for only nine points on 4-of-17 shooting in Game 3.
Landry scored 23 points for New Orleans, while Trevor Ariza had 12 points and 12 rebounds and Emeka Okafor had 15 points.
The Lakers’ size advantage translated to a 48-42 edge in points in the paint and a 43-38 advantage in rebounding. That included 14 offensive rebounds that helped produce 17 second-chance points.
”They are probably a lot bigger than we are but the rebounding to a degree is about attitude,” Hornets coach Monty Williams said. ”We just have to believe we can get those rebounds.”
NOTES: During the last two games, Hornets reserves have gone 9 of 34 from the field for 22 points. … Fisher was called for a technical foul for elbowing Marco Belinelli in the jaw after Belinelli had committed a foul. … Although the crowd was not nearly as star-studded as the first two games in Los Angeles, there were several celebrities in the sellout of 18,340, including musician 50 Cent, actor Gerard Butler and Saints running back Reggie Bush. … A fan made a halfcourt shot during a timeout to win a year’s supply of 7up.