Lakers-Hornets Preview

If Pau Gasol can’t get comfortable in a city once ruled by his

native Spain, the Los Angeles Lakers could be in for a long

series.

The Hornets already are showing signs of making the first round

of the playoffs more than a mere formality for the two-time

defending champs, having seized home advantage with a 1-1 split of

the series’ first two games in Los Angeles.

Four-time All-Star Chris Paul and his upstart squad will be back

home for Friday night’s Game 3, which perhaps not-so-coincidentally

sold out soon after Paul led the Hornets to an upset victory in the

opening game of the best-of-seven series.

Even in losing on Wednesday night, the Hornets showed they were

not about to let the Lakers wipe the floor with them. New Orleans

remained competitive until the final minutes of Game 2 and lost by

nine despite missing 12 free throws, turning the ball over 16 times

and having starting center Emeka Okafor in early foul trouble.

If anything, that result left the Hornets’ surprising nine-point

triumph in Game 1 look like less of a fluke and made it clear that

the Lakers had lost any intimidation factor they may have earned

with their four-game sweep of the teams’ regular season

meetings.

”We feel as though we kind of beat ourselves,” Hornets guard

Jarrett Jack said of Game 2. ”Take no credit away from them, but

we definitely had some mistakes.”

Then again, things might have been different if Gasol hadn’t

struggled in both games. He scored eight points in each – about 11

below his regular season average – on a combined 4 of 19

shooting.

For now, Gasol at least sounds as if his confidence is unshaken

and he knows the formula for snapping out of his postseason

shooting slump.

”You’ve got to stay aggressive out there, no matter what’s

going on, no matter whether things are going your way or not,”

Gasol said. ”You’ve got to continue to play and continue to make

plays whichever way you can.”

Even Kobe Bryant, who hasn’t been shy about urging Gasol to

overcome his nice-guy nature on the court, was more complimentary

of the struggling forward’s Game 2 performance.

”He didn’t have a good shooting night, but he was aggressive

and he attacked,” Bryant said. ”That’s what we need from him. He

sets the tone for everybody else in terms of him being aggressive.

It’s a certain energy that he carries with him.”

The Lakers survived Gasol’s 2 of 10 shooting on Wednesday in

part because they simply have the depth one expects from a title

contender. Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest picked up the

slack on offense. Meanwhile, the whole team played better defense

after Phil Jackson decided to have Bryant replace Derek Fisher as

Paul’s primary defender.

Rather than filling his normal role of piling up points, Bryant

focused on defense and it seemed to catch on among his teammates.

Jackson was clearly pleased and could very well employ the same

strategy again on Friday night.

”That was the defense that we played late in the season when we

had our little run,” Jackson said, referring to an 18-game stretch

in which the Lakers won 17 times.

Paul went from being dominant (33 points, 14 assists in Game 1)

to exceptional (20 points, nine assists in Game 2) and the Hornets

offensive flow as a whole seemed more disrupted as their shooting

percentage plummeted from 52 percent to 39 percent.

”I wish we could have gotten 2-0, but I feel good because we

competed,” Paul said. ”But in order to win this series, it’s

going to take more. It’s going to take more from me, it’s going to

take more from everybody.”

Hornets rookie coach Monty Williams wasn’t ready to congratulate

his team on leaving Los Angeles with one win. Rather, he wondered

whether he should be concerned that his team let an opportunity to

take a 2-0 lead slip away.

”It’s different because we’re playing against a team that has

so much experience in these situations, and we don’t and I don’t,”

Williams said. ”So, we have to play a certain way. We can’t say

‘Oh, we split in LA, now let’s go home.’ We have to have the

mentality that we have to win every game that we can.”

In other words, Williams remembers how the Lakers ripped the

2009-10 NBA title from Boston’s grasp after falling behind 3-2 in

the finals – and overcame a double-digit deficit in the second half

of Game 7 to do it.

Compared to the task they faced against the Celtics last June,

the Lakers challenge in the Big Easy doesn’t look all that hard. At

least, not yet.