Lakers-Hornets Preview

Chris Paul insisted he could not remember exactly how or when he

wound up with a left thumb injury that forced him to practice with

a black wrap on his left hand on Saturday.

He did have an excuse, though.

”We’ve got more stuff to worry about than my thumb … such as

winning this game,” Paul said of the Hornets’ Game 4 matchup on

Sunday night with the Los Angeles Lakers, who lead the

best-of-seven, first-round series 2-1.

”It’s a big game for us. It’s 2-1. It’s nothing to stress about

or anything like that, but I think tomorrow is a game we really

need to win,” Paul said.

Paul expected to be fine for Sunday’s game and Hornets coach

Monty Williams said his All-Star guard did not appear to be limited

by the injury to his non-shooting hand.

The Hornets can ill-afford to be without Paul at his best. He

has averaged 25 points, 10.3 assists, five rebounds and two steals

during the postseason. His 33-point, 14-assist performance in Game

1 was the main reason the Hornets were able to open the series with

an upset on the road.

The Hornets hoped to get a boost from returning home after

surprisingly splitting the first two games in Los Angeles. Instead,

the Lakers walked out of a jam-packed, boisterous New Orleans Arena

with a 100-86 win, the most lopsided result of the first three

games.

Kobe Bryant was his typical prolific self with 30 points, but

for Lakers coach Phil Jackson, the key to the win was the way

Andrew Bynum 14 points, 11 rebounds) and Pau Gasol (17 points, 10

rebounds) alternated in giving the Lakers a dominant presence in

the paint.

”The strength of our game kind of came back to play in this

series,” Jackson said. ”Kobe obviously had a big game

offensively, but it was really Drew in the first half and Pau in

the second getting things done.”

If the Lakers win on Sunday, it would give them a chance to

close out the series in Los Angeles on Tuesday night and avoid

having to come back to the Big Easy for Game 6 on Thursday.

A Los Angeles win also would mark the third time in four games

that the visiting team had won in the series.

”It was always funny to us. Everybody talks about home court

advantage,” Bryant said. ”We don’t care about that stuff. It

doesn’t matter to us where we play. … Our philosophy is, it’s

just a bunch of noise. That’s all it is. I just block it out.

”If you have kids, you’re used to dealing with that,” added

Bryant, who has two young daughters. ”If you’re trying to get

something done and your kids are yelling all over the place, you’ve

just got to focus on what you’re doing.”

Williams had sought to downplay any home advantage for the

Hornets before Game 3, reminding his players that fans cannot shoot

or rebound, and that the only way to benefit from the energy of a

home crowd is play a well enough all-around game to keep the crowd

engaged.

But the Hornets gave up 14 offensive rebounds, committed 14

turnovers and missed six free throws. Although they were as close

as 75-70 early in the fourth quarter. They never truly threatened

to take a lead in the second half.

Williams said the key is for his players to remember they’ve

been competitive for most of the first three games and not get

demoralized now that the Lakers are on the brink of taking a

stranglehold on the series.

”I told the guys, ‘You don’t realize how close you are. You’re

playing against the defending champs and they’re playing some of

their best ball and you’re right there,”’ Williams said. ”It’s

frustrating personally because for whatever reason, I’m not putting

them in a position to make that run.”

Part of the problem for the Hornets in Game 3 was that Paul was

a non-factor in the second half, when he scored only four of his 22

points. Paul refused to use his thumb injury as an excuse, and

instead blamed himself for not being aggressive enough when the

Lakers made a defensive adjustment to deny him the ball.

Bryant, meanwhile, has been through enough postseasons to know

that a playoff series is all about adjustments, both during and

between games.

Indeed, Williams spent Saturday’s practice working on ways for

the Hornets to make scoring inside and rebounding harder for the

Lakers. Meanwhile, some Hornets players have talked about Game 4

being a must-win.

Rather than seize upon that as a sign that the Hornets are in

trouble, Bryant said the Lakers need to see it as a reason to ramp

up their own efforts.

”We have the series lead. That doesn’t mean we’re in command of

the series,” Bryant said. ”So their approaching it as a must-win

is just a bigger challenge for us to come out and try to match that

energy. It should be fun.”

Bryant also is drawing motivation from the fact that the game is

taking him away from home – and his children – on Easter

Sunday.

”My girls said, ‘Well, just win. It’s OK (to be away on the

holiday) if you win. Just don’t lose,”’ Bryant said.

Then the five-time NBA champion added with a grin: ”I don’t

know where they get that attitude.”