Things to watch in Lakers-Hornets matchup
1. How will the Hornets respond to the pressure?
The Lakers enter Game 4 of their first-round matchup with the Hornets on Sunday enjoying a 2-1 lead, and suddenly New Orleans Coach Monty Williams is calling it a "must win." There's plenty of reason for the Hornets to feel that way. Phil Jackson's teams are 54-1 once they take a lead in a playoff series. The Lakers appear more serious in playing playoff basketball than they did last week when they lost Game 1. And the Hornets lack playoff experience, with the likes of Marco Belinelli, Emeka Okafor and Jarrett Jack making their first appearances in the postseason.
Clearly, the Hornets don't have the same talent and resiliency to handle such adversity, but that's been the theme for the Hornets all season. The NBA purchased the team from owners George Shinn and Gary Chouest, who were in financial trouble, in December. Chris Paul's future with the team before the season remained in question, highlighted by his reported comments at Carmelo Anthony's wedding that he'd like to team up with him and Amare Stoudemire. The Hornets played through plenty of pendulum swings, including a 12-1 start to the season and a 4-8 stretch in February. And they've had to compete in the playoffs without the services of David West, who suffered a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury with nine games remaining. Given the fact that New Orleans has overachieved, the Lakers shouldn't expect the Hornets to just give up now.
That's why the Lakers' collective hunger must stay high. It's almost inconceivable that the Lakers would lose a first-round series to New Orleans, but, as I outlined yesterday, there's no reason for them to make the path to three-peat harder than necessary. Given the Hornets' statistically low offensive production (94.9 points per game), methodical pace, and 19th-ranked offensive efficiency, the Lakers' storming out to a quick start would give them a stranglehold on Game 4.
2. How will Paul's injured left thumb affect his play?
He's telling reporters that he will suit up for Game 4 and that nothing is wrong with his thumb, but it's surely a factor the Lakers can exploit. The Hornets won Game 1 largely on the heels of Paul's 33 points on 11-of-18 shooting and 14 assists. But Bryant's defense on Paul in Game 2 and the Lakers' improved defense in Game 3 in shutting off the driving lanes and avoiding the temptation to switch on pick-and-rolls has helped limit New Orleans' speedy playmaker.
Considering the possibility that Paul's thumb could affect his play, the Hornets' supporting cast may need to produce more. Former Laker forward Trevor Ariza has scored in double digits in Games 2 and 3, but the Hornets have lacked the impressive outside shooting they enjoyed in Game 1. Belinelli went only two-of-eight from the field and one-of-seven from three-point range in Game 3, while Willie Green and Jarrett Jack combined for a one-of-10 clip. Surely part of this speaks to the Lakers' better execution on defending pick-and-rolls, but the possibility that Paul passes off more means the Lakers need to be sure they close out on the perimeter.
3. Will the Lakers' front line use its size advantage?
Let me make things clear. Pau Gasol is normally one of the team's most efficient and consistent players, but his occasional bad stretches stand out glaringly and sometimes take a while for him to shake off. That's why I was curious when I outlined in a post how he'd respond with his 17-point, 10-rebound effort the next game in Game 4. Andrew Bynum has also been reliable in Games 2 and 3, but he experienced another incident in the latter game where it appeared he almost suffered another injury. The Lakers have indicated Bynum is ready to go in Game 4, a good sign if they are going to take advantage of their height, which resulted in the Lakers getting 17 second-chance points and grabbing 14 offensive rebounds.
-- Mark Medina