Pau Gasol, Willie Green

NBA Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Lakers vs. New Orleans

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SEASON RECORDS
Lakers: 57-25 (No. 2 seed)
Hornets: 46-36 (No. 7 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Lakers sweep 4-0.

KEY INJURIES
Lakers: Andrew Bynum, he has a bone bruise in his surgically-repaired right knee due to a fall Tuesday night against San Antonio, he said he could play but the Lakers may be cautious with Game 1; Matt Barnes has had a knee problem but is expected to go for the playoffs; Steve Blake has the chicken pox and could be out a week or more. And stop laughing at him, it’s not funny.
Hornets: David West, the team’s leading scorer, will be out for the series after having his knee reconstructed.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Lakers: Off. 107.9 (7th in NBA); 101.3 (6th in NBA)
Hornets: Off. 103.8 (19th in NBA); 102.5 (10th in NBA)

THREE KEY LAKERS

Pau Gasol: The question is not if Pau Gasol is capable off scoring on the Hornets, he can score on anyone. The question is will the Lakers guards get him the rock? The Lakers have this habit of just going away from getting the ball into the post because… well, nobody knows why. Phil Jackson would like to know why. Without David West the Hornets have to use Carl Landry to cover Pau Gasol, and last meeting Gasol had 23 points on 14 shots in that situation. The Lakers need to exploit that matchup until the Hornets adjust.

Lamar Odom: The Hornets are not a very deep team, when the two teams go to the bench the Lakers have a big advantage, and soon to be Sixth Man of the Year is key to that. The Hornets have nobody who can match up with him, he can get Bynum some rest for that knee and present serious matchup issues for the Hornets.

Andrew Bynum: The Hornets are going to run a lot of pick-and-roll, about 21 percent of their offense either comes from the ball-handler (Chris Paul) or the roll man on this play. Plus they got a lot of spot up opportunities off this play. The Lakers center has started to lay back on those — by design — and give up jumpers to take away penetration, but when asked can he show out on Paul and recover with Emeka Okafor? It matters this series, it will matter more in future rounds.

THREE KEY HORNETS

Carl Landry: David West was at the heart of everything the Hornets did, and Landry is his replacement. He has stepped up on offense — in the team’s last 10 games he has been the leading scorer at 14.9 points per game on 51.8 shooting. He is going to have to keep that up and then go to the other end of the floor and defend Gasol. If the Hornets are to have any chance Landry is key.

Chris Paul: The Lakers do not defend point guards well, and there is no better point guard in the league than CP3. The Lakers will likely try to hide Derek Fisher by asking him to cover Hornets coach Monty Williams (“Hey, just go stand by the guy in the suit”) and that means a combination of Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant on CP3. Paul has shot 41.5 percent in the Hornets last 10 and 20 percent from three. That will not do it here. Simply put, he is going to have to be amazing both scoring and passing to steal a game from Los Angeles.

Trevor Ariza: The former Lakers will be looking for a measure of revenge. He also will draw the Kobe Bryant cover. You need to get Kobe shooting a lot, particularly jumpers, and not running the offense to beat the Lakers and Ariza has to goad and challenge Kobe into that mode.

OUTLOOK

With all due respect to how well Landry has played, the Hornets really need David West here. The offensive problems that West created would have challenged Pau Gasol more and maybe tiered the Spaniard out some.

Look for the Hornets to try to pick-and-roll the Lakers to death, the Lakers strategy has been to lay back on that and dare you to beat them with the jump shot. Paul is going to have to both knock down shots and find ways to get some easy buckets inside for his teammates. They need to get Andrew Bynum and his balky knee on the move, the problem is the Hornets are not really a running team.

Emeka Okafor also is going to have to have a monster series on the glass for the Hornets to have a chance.

PREDICTION

Without West the Hornets do not have the firepower. They didn’t really with him, but without him the Hornets (like most teams) just cannot match up with the length and skill of the Lakers front line.

Lakers in 5.

Three things we learned Thursday: Memphis, Marc Gasol just win every close game

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) shoots between Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu, from left, center Mason Plumlee, and forward Jake Layman (10) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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Here’s what you missed Thursday around the NBA while you were drinking homemade glow-in-the-dark beer with jellyfish genes in it (no, you try it first, I insist)…

1) Don’t play Memphis in a close game, they just find a way to win.
Last week, when Mike Conley went down with a back injury and was going to miss six weeks (give or take), we questioned if Memphis could keep their heads above water. They promptly went out and lost to a very good Toronto team.

Since then they have won five in a row, capped by an impressive 88-86 win over Portland Tuesday. Impressive because:

• Memphis is now 12-0 in games that were within 3 points in the final minute. You get in a close game with Memphis, you lose. (Statistically, we know some of that is luck, that there will be some regression to the mean, but that stat has propelled a team has been outscored by nine points this season, one that should be 12-12, to the 16-8 record they have.)

• Memphis trailed Portland 79-68 with less than five minutes to go, and still won.

Marc Gasol had 36 points and has been an absolute beast since Conley went down, doing whatever it takes to win.

• Toney Douglas — a guy the Grizzlies just picked up off the street this week, basically — comes in and is clutch down the stretch for them, including hitting the game-winning free throws with 0.5 seconds left (Damian Lillard tried to argue the call, to no avail).

The schedule gets tough for Memphis the next couple of weeks — Golden State, home-and-home with Cleveland, then Boston and Utah looming not long after — but do not doubt the Grizzlies. No team is as resilient as this bunch.

2) Bulls prove Spurs aren’t perfect on the road. It was bound to happen, the San Antonio Spurs were 13-0 on the road, they were going to stumble at some point. That point turned out to be Thursday night in Chicago, where the Spurs came out of the gate like they went out and had a big pregame meal of Lou Malnati’s pizza — 32 points on 30.6 percent shooting in the first half for San Antonio. The Spurs didn’t defend poorly, for example Kawhi Leonard held Jimmy Butler to no first-half points — in fact, midway through the first quarter Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez had scored almost all the Bulls’ buckets — but the San Antonio offense was dreadful. Throw a little credit to the Chicago defense if you want, but this was more San Antonio stumbling than a Chicago return to the Thibodeau era.

The Bulls were up 12 at the half and were able to hang on despite a strong second 24 minutes from Leonard (17 of his 24 came in the second half) and get the win. Dwyane Wade had 20 points and hit a couple of key buckets late to stabilize Chicago. For a Bulls team that is going to be in a playoff battle all season — they are the seven seed right now, one game ahead of the Pacers in ninth — these kinds of wins at home can prove huge.

3) What is it with Minnesota and second half? On the road, the Minnesota Timberwolves had played the Toronto Raptors even for the first 24 minutes — it was 59-59 at the half. And yet, there was a sense of dread for Timberwolves fans because all season their young team has just come apart in the third quarter — and then Toronto opened the second half on an 11-2 run. Minnesota, to their credit, crawls back into it, but midway through the fourth the Raptors go on a 17-4 run sparked by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and the Raptors pull away for the 124-110 win. The Timberwolves lost another game because they can’t defend well.

Minnesota shows flashes of the kind of brilliance that has everyone thinking they might be a contender in a few years. But we all expected too much too soon from this group. Those impressive stretches are followed by ones where they play like a young team, they don’t defend well, and they throw those good efforts away. Not that they were going to beat a good Toronto team on the road, but the Timberwolves can be frustrating to watch. Patience is hard, and Minnesota fans are being asked to show a lot of it. We can debate if it’s time to bring Ricky Rubio off the bench and let Kris Dunn sink or swim, but that’s not the core problem. Ultimately, the Timberwolves are young and playing like it. They don’t know how and aren’t putting in the effort to defend well yet. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, they can be the core of a contender eventually, but there is a lot of learning to do along the way. Tom Thibodeau can teach them. But it’s going to require patience.

Watch Joel Embiid completely erase Anthony Davis’ layup

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Anthony Davis is languishing in New Orleans, but at least Thursday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers pitted The Brow against The Process. That is, Joel Embiid.

When the two multi-talented big men met on the floor in New Orleans, Embiid got the better of Davis on at least one play.

With the ball on the left wing, Davis was able to get a step on Ersan Ilyasova out of the triple-threat position. As Davis dribbled toward an open lane, Embiid slid over to add some extra protection:

Great timing and court feel from Embiid, who has looked like a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year.

Spurs fall to Bulls 95-91 after winning first 13 road games

Chicago Bulls guard Dwyane Wade (3) is defended by San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/David Banks)
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CHICAGO (AP) — Dwyane Wade scored 20 points, and the Chicago Bulls handed San Antonio its first road loss after a 13-0 start, hanging on to beat the Spurs 95-91 on Thursday night.

San Antonio fell one win shy of matching the NBA’s best road start set by the Golden State Warriors last season. The Spurs cut an 18-point deficit midway through the third quarter to four in the closing minutes, only to come up short.

Kawhi Leonard scored 24 for San Antonio. Patty Mills added 16 points, hitting 4 of 6 3-pointers. Former Bull Pau Gasol had 13 points and 10 rebounds in his first game in Chicago since signing with San Antonio in the summer, but the Spurs lost a road game for the first time since Oklahoma City knocked them out in the Western Conference semifinals last season.

Jimmy Butler scored all of his 13 points for Chicago in the second half. Rajon Rondo added 12 points, nine assists and 10 rebounds, and Chicago picked up the win after dropping three in a row and six of nine.

The Spurs hadn’t dropped a regular-season road game since Denver beat them on April 8. But after a big push down the stretch, they came up short in this one.

The Bulls led 65-47 midway through the third following a surge by Butler, who scored seven in a 54-second span after missing his first six shots. But the Spurs jumped back into it in the closing minutes of the quarter.

They went on an 11-2 run that Mills finished with a 3 to cut it to 72-66 just under a minute into the fourth.

Things got real tight when Gasol nailed a 3 to pull San Antonio to within 88-84 with 3:24 left. Doug McDermott then hit three free throws after being fouled by Tony Parker, and the teams basically exchanged baskets the rest of the way.

TIP-INS

Spurs: Parker had eight points and five assists after missing a game because of a bruised left knee. … For the second straight game, the Spurs set a season low for first-quarter scoring. They had 17 points after managing 19 at Minnesota on Tuesday night.

Bulls: F Doug McDermott scored eight points after being sidelined because of a concussion since Nov. 11. … Butler had scored 20 or more in 15 consecutive games, the longest streak by a Bulls player since Michael Jordan did it in 24 straight during the 1995-96 season.

 

Parker returns to Spurs’ lineup against Bulls

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CHICAGO (AP) San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker returned to the lineup Thursday night against the Chicago Bulls after missing a game because of a bruised left knee.

The seven-time All-Star did not play at Minnesota on Tuesday night after knocking knees with a Milwaukee Bucks defender the previous night. He started against the Bucks after missing two games with a thigh contusion.

Parker came into Thursday averaging 9.4 points and 4.4 assists.

Chicago’s Doug McDermott returned to the rotation after missing nearly a month because of a concussion.