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.

Steven Adams says Thunder late-game struggles on him, not Westbrook/George/Anthony

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In the first half of games this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have the best defense in the NBA, allowing just 91.7 points per 100 possessions. In those first 24 minutes, the Thunder are outscoring teams by 12.7 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA (Houston is first).

However, in the fourth quarter, the Thunder defense is 18.1 points per 100 possessions worse. Their offense stagnates late in games with a lot of “you take a turn and then it’s my turn” isolation between Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony.

The Thunder have nine losses this season, and OKC lost double-digit leads in six of those. Monday night it was a 19-point lead against New Orleans where the Pelicans — without DeMarcus Cousins — came back to win 114-107.

There’s a lot of blame and finger-pointing going on in Oklahoma City, but Steven Adams said less of that should be at the three stars and more of it should be at him. Via Royce Young at ESPN:

“Mainly me, to be honest (should be blamed). Because the play itself you have to execute it properly and it has to be legit down to the t. I screwed up my feet on a couple of them in terms of spacing. … Everyone plays a part in the plight so you can say yeah the shot doesn’t go in which sucks. But to get them that shot I didn’t help them.”

Adams can take on a little of the blame, but this is a team thing right now — everyone has earned some blame. Billy Donovan as coach, role players like Andre Roberson or Patrick Patterson who have not lived up to expectations this season, and yes Westbrook/George/Anthony have earned some blame, too. It’s a little bit of everything.

There’s also time for the Thunder to figure it out, but they are on the clock as this is a one-year experiment in Oklahoma City (no way they pay the whopping tax coming next season to keep all three stars and Adams, no matter what ownership says publicly).

C.J. McCollum: I told Evan Fournier during altercation ‘ you’re sweet and soft like those crepes you eat’

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C.J. McCollum blew kisses at Evan Fournier when they got into a confrontation during the Trail Blazers’ win over the Magic last week:

But apparently the incident was even better than that!

McCollum on The Flagrant Two podcast, as transcribed by Colin Ward-Henninger of CBSSports.com:

“I just felt like he disrespected me by putting his hands on me,” McCollum said. “Obviously, I’m not trying to get any fines or anything of that nature and I told him he was sweet. He’s French, and I said that, ‘you’re sweet and soft like those crepes you eat.’ “

Did McCollum actually say that in the moment, or did he come up with the line after the fact? I want the former to be true, so I choose to believe it.

Report: Nuggets Paul Millsap out three months due to wrist surgery

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There were big sighs of relief in Denver when Paul Millsaps’ X-rays on his injured wrist came back negative. There were fears of a fracture suffered against the Lakers last weekend, but word from the team is it was just a sprain. He sat out the game against the Kings, but the timeline for his return was not expected to be long.

Except it has turned out to be a little more than a simple sprain. From Sham Charania of Yahoo and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Millsap — who signed a three-year, $90 million contract with Denver over the summer, after spending seven seasons with the Jazz and Hawks — is averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds a game. More importantly, he has been key to Denver’s defense going from one of the NBA’s worst to the middle of the pack this season. He’s started the season getting a handful fewer shots a game then he did in Atlanta last season, and Millsap was slightly less efficient, but like the team as a whole he seemed to be finding a groove and looked better during the recent streak when Denver won 4-of-5. He and the Nuggets were figuring out how to play together.

The Nuggets have been 4.5 points per 100 possessions better when Millsap has been on the court this season, and that will not be easy to replace.

While Kenneth Faried got the start with Millsap out last game, it was Trey Lyles who stepped up — and who Denver needs to step up with Millsap out. Others will have to step up with some defense while he is out.

LaVar Ball on Luke Walton: “They’re soft. They don’t know how to coach my son.”

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Luke Walton is trying to create a professional environment around his young Lakers’ core. One where they expect the players to put in extra work without being told they have to, one where the coaches guide the development, but it’s ultimately the player in charge of his own course. Basically, Walton is treating his young players like adults and is asking them to respond to it like professional adults. It’s what he’s seen Steve Kerr do in Golden State and it works. It’s how Gregg Popovich has created a dynasty in San Antonio.

LaVar Ball sees the world very differently. He’s old school, from the “do as I say” mold.

So it shouldn’t be a shock that after the Lakers’ ugly loss last Friday to the Suns, the Lakers media spoke to LaVar Ball about his son’s play and Ball took a shot at the Lakers’ coach. Here are the quotes, via Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report.

“They’re soft. They don’t know how to coach my son. I know how to coach him,” LaVar Ball said. “I tell him to go get the victory. Stop messing around.”

Does he have a problem with coach Luke Walton?

“No, I have a problem with losing,” Ball responded.

I have multiple thoughts here, which means bullet points.

• I am breaking my own rule with this post, which is “don’t cover LaVar Ball, he’s just meaningless click bait.” I debated the point, but I think there is a legitimate basketball reason to cover this post (keep reading).

• Things Luke Walton cares more about than what LaVar Ball thinks of his coaching style: How much extra guacamole costs at Chipotle; if Netflix has “Golden Girls” to stream; what shoes Lakers’ sideline reporter Mike Trudell is wearing during postgame interviews; which Van Halen album “Dance the Night Away” is on; which show won the 1974 Tony for Best Musical.

Lonzo Ball‘s struggles with his shot this season — 31.3 percent overall, and he is struggling from three and around the rim — are well documented. It’s clear he is in his own head about it at this point. What can keep him there longer is conflicting advice from his father and his coach. So far, Lonzo seems to be siding with the coaching staff, for example, he credited assistant coach Brian Shaw for telling him to rebound more aggressively, then push the ball himself. LaVar will want to take credit for that, too. Lonzo needs to listen to his coaches, take his father’s advice for what it’s worth, and find his path.

• LaVar is lucky that the level-headed, mature-for-his-age, hard-working Lonzo was his oldest son. Just from what I see on the outside, not sure either of the other two Ball children could have handled this scrutiny nearly as well.

• Luke Walton is working to create something sustainable with the Lakers, they are not going to let anything (or anyone) bump them off that path.