By Craig Kwasniewski
Nothing gets me out of a year long writer's block faster than a terrible Lakers loss. Terrible you say, but didn't they steal back home court advantage on Friday? Aren't they playing with house money, just a chance to steal a 3-1 lead with a shot at closing out the series on Tuesday? Yes for any other team in the NBA, but these are the two-time defending champs, with Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson, Pau Gasol and the reigning 6th man Lamar Odom (more on him later, oh yes, more on him later!)...
Point blank, the Lakers have no business struggling against New Orleans Hornets. It's not about being an arrogant Lakers fan it's simply about match-ups and overall talent. The Lakers have championship talent and coaching whereas the Hornets have 7th seeded talent with their all-star power forward out for the year. At best/worst this is a five-game series and nothing more.
Let's get right to it, five questions after the Lakers lost Game 4:
1 - What's wrong with Pau Gasol? How is it that the triumvirate of Carl Landry, Aaron Gray and DJ Mbenga are constantly giving one of the best big men in the NBA constant fits? Didn't Gasol finally exorcise his demons last summer against the Celtics? Isn't he supposed to be fired up after hearing Kendrick Perkins call him out for being soft? Yet here we are again and three very physical bigs are throwing 48 minutes of body blows and Pau's leaning hard against the ropes. It's actually brilliant coaching by Monty Williams. He knows his bigs can't match Gasol point for point so instead lean, push, shove and occasionally elbow the willowy forward out of his comfort zone. And you know what? It's working! One of the surest, most reliable bigs in the NBA is questioning himself, dropping sure passes and missing bunnies. It's ugly, but not incurable. Pau needs to be patient and trust the Triangle, feed the cutters and move up to the pinch post, opening the key for Bynum to work inside. But really, Monty Williams has been a genius in handing Gasol.
2 - Will Kobe's ankle hurt the Lakers in Game 5? Over this back-to-back championship run, the Lakers actually play better when Kobe's dinged up. Suddenly he realizes he's human and actually has to trust the system. The system? Oh yeah the Triangle Offense that brought Phil Jackson 11 NBA titles. During the Lakers slide in April, Kobe's need to prove he's still a top 5 player has hurt the Lakers offensive rhythm. With a dinged ankle he will realize he can't break down defenses one-on-five and has to initiate the Triangle as intended from the inside out. With Bynum, Gasol and Odom inside, the Lakers should be fine.
However if Kobe goes out to prove he's not hurt and tries to find a "Jordan Flu Game" situation then the Lakers will struggle on Tuesday. But I really don't see that happening.
3 - Lamar Odom... WTF? This was going to be a "Five Questions About Lamar Odom's Heart" post but Matt Moore correctly pointed out that he's not really a major storyline for the Lakers. So I'll just waste one question on the guy, but trust me one more game like this and I'm starting a Lamarmustgo.com blog. How the hell can you mail in two playoff games? How is it that the media continues to give Odom a hall pass for these shit-storm efforts? Can we revoke the 6th Man Award?
I read how Gasol has disappeared, how Kobe's shot selection is off and how Bynum isn't getting touches, but what about Odom averaging 8 points and 2.5 rebounds in the two losses? (And really it's 5 points per but Odom hit two late BS threes in Game 1 to bring his total to a respectable 10.) Watch Game 4 again and focus on Odom, the guy spent the 4th quarter running away from action. How? Why? How? Why? Seriously, I'm not sure where to start but I know where to finish, Lamar you played like ass in games 1 and 4 and if nobody will say it I will... DO YOU REALIZE IT'S THE PLAYOFFS???
At least Phil Jackson called you out (well indirectly but anyone who watched the game knows who PJ was talking about) when he said, "We punked out there on the court tonight.”
That's you Lamar! In this series he's averaging 11.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per, far less than 14.4 and 8.7 that the "6th Man of the Year" winner was dropping nightly. Is this just Monty Williams pushing all the right buttons again? Hardly. This is Lamar Odom on Sunday mode and no coincidence, the Lakers lost both games on Sunday.
4 - Is Chris Paul the difference in the series? Yes and no. He's been absolutely stellar in the Hornets two wins. He's turned the clock back to his near-MVP season of 2008 with huge assist numbers and a jarring triple double tonight. He's exactly what we thought he'd be (slam the dais!). But the real difference-maker is Monty Williams. He's devised a punch-you-in-the-face physical defense that has Gasol reeling. Plus by managing Chris Paul's minutes during the regular season (obviously a trait he picked up from Gregg Popovich) he has a very spry and healthy CP3 to work with. The Hornets might not have the talent to match the Lakers, but with Williams on the sideline the actually believe they have a decent shot at knocking off the defending champs... and really that's half the battle: belief.
5 - Can the Lakers pull through? Cliche alert! The better team always wins in a seven game series. The Lakers still have more talent and Phil Jackson still calls the shots, so in theory the Lakers will still prevail. It's frustrating because the Lakers know EXACTLY what to do to beat New Orleans but they can't find the energy to execute. It's a matter of effort and talent. They have the talent but they haven't given the right amount of effort to advance. Simply put, it's about initiating the offense from inside-out, contesting the perimeter on D and controlling the boards. Done and done in Games 2 and 3 but the Lakers underestimated the Hornets resolve and expected them to simply give up after dropping Game 3. That wasn't the case and now they're faced with the dreaded "must win" game on Tuesday.
The dominant defensive Lakers will return on Tuesday and they'll match the same energy for a Game 6 win, but this should never have been a 6 game series against an undermanned New Orleans Hornets squad.