Well…that was easy.
In a series that they were pegged to sweep, the Lakers were challenged for five games by a New Orleans Hornets team who played like they had nothing to lose, led by an elite point guard who couldn’t be stopped. No home court advantage? So? A rookie coach? No problem. No David West, the leading scorer on the team? Who cares? They were pesky, energetic and weren’t playing like the team that the defending champs were supposed to run over…until tonight.
Tonight, the Hornets had a chance to force a Game 7 in the comforts of their own home floor, but it was the Lakers who played like Jack Nicholson was sitting courtside. The youngest coach in the NBA, as much credit as he was given for his first year, was no match for the 11-time championship coach’s experience. And the peskiness? It was nowhere to be found as the Hornets were, in fact, the pestered instead.
It was a ragged beginning to the game, with neither team able to get a shot in. At one point, the Lakers were 2-10 from the field with the Hornets no better shooting just 3 of their first 9 attempts. There was no telling whether each team was just playing great defense, or just couldn’t figure out how to score. After one quarter, the Lakers found their way to the rim to shoot 40% from the field but the home team? An ugly 33%
As Game 6 in New Orleans rolled on, so did the Lakers, led each possession by their defensive awareness and execution, followed by a dominant inside game that was too much for the team facing elimination. Wherever Chris Paul turned, there was a wall of purple jerseys waiting to deter his path. The once open passing lanes were now blocked, and the rim was constantly guarded by a seven-foot center who didn’t care for courageous little point guards. Paul, not as aggressive as he had been in previous games, attempted just two shots in the first half and made one en route to a less than stellar 10 points on 4-9, 11 assists, eight rebounds and five turnovers.
To say that Andrew Bynum dominated this series would be an understatement. He averaged 14.6 ppg and 10.0 rpg in these six games, much to the pleasure of one Kobe Bryant (24 points on 6-16, 13 points in the third quarter).
“He’s our anchor defensively,” Bryant claimed, adding that Bynum has now also developed the ability to hit jumpers, as if Pau Gasol’s consistency in that department wasn’t already a treasure. “And he’s getting better,” Bryant added with a smile.
Bynum scored 18 points on an efficient 8-13 from the field, grabbed 12 rebounds (8 offensive!) and blocked two shots.
After the third quarter, the Lakers led by just 12 points. Four and a half minutes into the fourth and final quarter, Andrew Bynum and the Laker bench had opened up a 20-point lead. The reserves more than filled in in this game. They took over seamlessly when the starters sat, on both ends of the court. They outscored the Hornets’ bench 30-21, led by Lamar Odom’s 14 points, eight rebounds, four assists and zero turnovers.
The Lakers’ offense, despite shooting just 46% from the field, was created by 23 assists on 34 made field goals. Adding to the list of double-digit scorers was Pau Gasol, who didn’t hit his first field goal until just over three minutes into the third quarter. He did, however, finish with 16 points on 5-12 and eight rebounds, not to mention handed out three assists and blocked two shots.
So the Lakers didn’t sweep the Hornets, and it looked like they struggled more than people predicted they should have. Kobe Bryant’s take however, is that, “The longer the series goes on, the more we learn.”
Tonight the Lakers learned that their knack for being able to close a series on the road still stands (they closed all their Western Conference series away from Staples Center last season). They learned that their budding young center, even after five years in the league, is still budding…but now he seems to be doing so at an exponential rate. That their faith in each other and in their system is foolproof when the execution is, well, executed.
And what have we learned? Perhaps, finally, that this third championship in a row will be significantly more difficult to attain than the first two…but that we’ll watch regardless because the ups and downs, consistency and inconsistency, the drama of it all is just too good to miss.
Pre-game Thoughts: A.B.C = Always Be Closing – This pesky Hornets team will not go quietly into that good night. They’ve played hard in every game thus far. There’s no telling how much their desperation will push them to get that Game 7.
Half-time Thoughts: 40-34 – It hasn’t been the prettiest game offensively, but the Lakers have done their job on the defensive end, keeping NO to 33% shooting after the 1st quarter, and only 41% for the half. Chris Paul, playing with two early fouls, has made just one of his two shots for his 2 points and has only handed out four assists. On the offensive end, it has been Andrew Bynum commanding inside. He’s got 12 points on 6-9 and has grabbed seven rebounds. Pau Gasol has been slow to start; sitting at just two points off two free throws and has just four rebounds. The Lakers need to keep their attention to defense in tact, and Chris Paul is sure to have an aggressive second half so they need to continue to contain him as much as possible.
Most Thoughtless Play(s)/Player(s) of the Game: Chris Paul – Not the kind of game I expected from someone who has given the Lakers such problems in this series. Maybe the Lakers figured him out, but even then, he attempted just nine shots.
Most Thought-filled Play(s)/Player(s) of the Game (Heck, of the SERIES): Andrew Bynum – Kobe Bryant may have made a statement with his dunks, and Ron Artest may have had one of his best offensive series since he got to L.A., but if not for Bynum, this series could have gone the other way. He’s too big, has become too skilled and he’s playing just as hungrily as his team captains for that threepeat.