For five games, Chris Paul was playing like the best point guard in the game. He had played two super-human games to earn New Orleans two wins against the defending champions, and even in the losses he had been special.
The Hornets needed him to do that. He was their only hope.
And when he crashed back to earth in Game 6 — in part due to good Lakers defense, in part he had an off night and in part because he was passive — the Hornets were totally outmatched. Especially on a night where the Lakers big center Andrew Bynum asserted himself.
The result was the Lakers cruising to a 98-80 win. With the victory the Lakers advance to the second round, where they will face the winner of the Portland/Dallas series.
This series was not easy for the Lakers, but they may be the better for it in the end. They came into this series playing lazy from the end of the season and carried it over to Game 1. By Game 6 the Lakers had found the defensive groove that had them winning 17-of-18 for a stretch in March and looking like contenders.
Paul finished with 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting, plus he dished out 11 assists. But when faced with another night of good interior defense from the Lakers he became passive. That has been the knock on him in recent years, in part that was caused by injuries. But there seemed to be a frustration to, a realization that for all he could do — as much as he looked and played like the vintage Chris Paul in this series — his team was overmatched.
Meanwhile, Andrew Bynum had 18 points and 12 rebounds — 8 of them on offense. More importantly he and Pau Gasol (each with two blocks) took control of the paint, cutting of drives and turning the Hornets into jump shooters.
The Hornets two easily settled for those jumpers rather than driving into the lane, they aren’t that good at hitting those midrange shots and as a result in the second and third quarter the Lakers started to pull away.
This was by no means a pretty game. The first quarter was filled with ugly offense. Good defense was part of it, but there was just some bad offense too. No motion, missed shots. The Lakers adjusted some but even at the half the score was 40-34 Lakers.
The Lakers move on, but like we said they exit this series better than they came into it. CP3’s play and the heart of the Hornets, their hard effort, forced the Lakers to play closer to their potential. The problem for New Orleans really was that once the Lakers woke up they were going to be out matched.
For the Hornets, seemingly countless questions lie ahead.
Starting with, who will own the team? Can the NBA — which has boosted local sponsorship and increased season tickets while working to get a better lease deal — find local ownership? New Orleans has not been an easy NBA market in the best of times.
Then there is the Chris Paul question. He can leave in the summer of 2012, next season he could put the Hornets in the position the Nuggets were in with Carmelo Anthony this season. Is he frustrated enough with the situation, does he see so little hope that he could try to force his way out? How will the lockout and the new collective bargaining agreement impact all of that?
There are hard questions ahead for the Hornets. But one thing was clear as the fans in New Orleans rained down a “thank you Hornets” chant on their team at the end of that game — New Orleans has some passionate fans that love that team.