Paul practices with left hand wrapped

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.”