You could hear a pin drop in the Staples Center. The Lakers were supposed to steamroll the short-handed New Orleans Hornets in the first round on their way to a potential three-peat, but the Hornets stunned the NBA world and took game one in the Staples Center. And unlike the Grizzlies’ win, the Hornets’ win didn’t come down to a single possession. While the Hornets never opened up a huge lead on the Lakers, they rarely trailed in the game, and were able to pull away at the end. Pau Gasol was invisible. Kobe Bryant was outplayed by Chris Paul down the stretch. For the first time in the Phil Jackson era, the Lakers lost a 1st-round series opener at home.
From the very beginning of the game, something didn’t seem quite right for the Lakers. As Jackson put it after the game, “I think we were late on everything. They were the aggressors, they stayed aggressive and beat us to balls…We’re not really good in morning games. Our just just weren’t really sharp all year. We really weren’t animated and really aggressive. I thought Ron Artest was probably our best player out there today.”
The Lakers seemed reluctant to get the ball inside, which is where their biggest advantage against the Hornets — or any other team, for that matter — should be. The ball rarely came to Pau Gasol in the post, and Gasol was passive when it did — at one point, he had Jarret Jack guarding him after a switch, but immediately passed the ball back out to the perimeter.
The Hornets were able to use their speed advantage to get into the paint, and outscored the Lakers 52-34 in the painted area. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol combined for one offensive rebound. Kobe Bryant had a great shooting night and looked unstoppable at times, but found himself playing one-on-five far more often than Phil Jackson would have liked.
When the Lakers fail to establish their inside game and are forced to rely on Kobe creating from the perimeter, there’s always a chicken-or-egg question: were the Lakers forced to rely on Kobe because their interior game wasn’t working, or because Bryant didn’t work hard enough to establish their interior game? In the post-game press conference, a visibly frustrated Jackson seemed to be of the latter opinion, saying that “There wasn’t a lot of direction towards [Pau Gasol]. There weren’t a lot of balls in the post. We didn’t get the ball inside, which is one of our strengths.”
Hornets coach Monty Williams, who admitted that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the way his team was able to handle the defending champions, seemed completely dumbfounded by Gasol’s ineffectiveness, and noted that Gasol shot over 70% against the Hornets when the two teams played each other in the regular season. Ron Artest came to play on Sunday, and was more than willing to bang for tough baskets and offensive rebounds inside, but for most of the game, the Lakers reverted to Kobe vs. The World offensively.
On defense, the Lakers had nothing resembling an answer for Chris Paul, who looked like the best point guard in the world on Sunday. He picked apart the Laker defense with precise passes. He used his ballhandling ability to work in between the Laker defenders and get easy pull-up jumpers before the help could react. He was active on defense and on the glass. He went hard to the basket and either made the basket or drew a foul. He had perfect control of the offense, and was the biggest reason the Hornets only turned the ball over three times all game. He was regularly able to force the Lakers to switch a big man onto him and break down the defense from there. With the precision of a surgeon, Paul rendered the Laker defense completely helpless.
After the game, Kobe was frustrated with the way his team defended Paul and the rest of the Hornets, saying “We didn’t do the coverages, defensively, that we were supposed to do. We just didn’t do ’em.”
In the last five minutes of the game, Paul accounted for 15 points and one assist while Kobe went 0-4 with one turnover. Paul has been inconsistent for the last two seasons, and Kobe has the last two Finals MVP awards on his mantle, but Paul was the superior player in game one.
One thing that both teams should be worry about is the play and injury status of Aaron Gray — the little-known center made all five of his shots off the bench, was a game-high +25, and, according to Phil Jackson, outplayed the Laker bigs. Unfortunately for the Hornets, Gray twisted his ankle and suffered a mild sprain with about a minute left in the game. If he’s back at 100% on Wednesday, it’s bad news for the Lakers. If he’s not, the Hornets are going to be forced to give more minutes to D.J. Mbenga.
Was this game a fluke, or do the Lakers have to worry about whether or not they will advance to the second round? It’s clear that the Lakers will need to have Bynum and especially Gasol playing at a higher level than they did tonight. If the Lakers don’t use the advantage they have inside against the Hornets, they will make this into a much more even series than it should be on paper. They will need to get more out of their bench, especially Lamar Odom. They will need to find some way to stop Chris Paul, or at least slow him down.
If they do those things, the Lakers can easily take this series in five or six games, even with the setback they suffered tonight. But if the Lakers continue to allow Paul to run rampant and forget that two of the best big men in the NBA play for their team, Phil Jackson’s legendary career could end on a very low note.