The defending champions will set out to reclaim their prize as a pesky defense stands in the way.
2. Los Angeles Lakers vs. 7. New Orleans Hornets
This matchup would have been sexy about two or three years ago when the Hornets were an offensive force to reckon with. Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler and David West ran some of the smoothest plays in the NBA under Byron Scott who actually had no idea what he was dealing with. Now, Paul is entering the playoffs by himself with Chandler in Dallas, West out with an injured knee and Scott “living it up” in Cleveland. Not to mention Monty Williams has turned New Orleans into a team that wins off of defense rather than the fast break.
The Lakers didn’t look too hot towards the end of the season dropping five of their last seven games including a five game losing streak. It would have appeared as though they were taking it easy down the stretch but the starters played the same amount of minutes as they had all season long. It would have been foolish to take such games lightly with both Dallas and Oklahoma City vying for that second seed in the West. The Lakers had to win their last two just to hold onto that spot. However unusual loses to Golden State and Utah simply showed that the Lakers got tired towards the end of the regular season.
Regardless, this LA team is different than last year’s. The addition of Matt Barnes and Steve Blake greatly increased what would be considered dismal depth. However, they did win two titles in a row with what would be considered a terrible bench and Jordan Farmar. Additionally, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum really carried the frontcourt nicely this season. It does appear that Bynum did suffer from a bone bruise in their game against Sacramento but they say that he should be available for game one. If it turns out that he will be out for some time, Odom and Gasol are used to having to fill in for the young guy who already missed a bit of games this season.
To put it simply, this series really comes down to Paul vs. the Lakers. He is working with fewer tools than ever before in an offense that is 27th in the league in scoring with only 94 a night. The Hornets will have to score if they want to win this series and that’s really dummying it down. Yes, New Orleans has won with its defense but LA will score no matter what. They will have to mimic the Hornets we spoke of earlier if they even want to have a chance. They lost to LA four times this season and in each game they failed to reach 100 points (88, 97, 95, 84). Meanwhile, the Lakers broke 100 every game (103, 101, 101, 102).
David West will be sorely missed in that frontcourt which is centered around Emeka Okafor and Carl Landry. Other than that, they have nothing. Trevor Ariza is not having a great season there at all and was mainly brought in as a shutdown defender. Having to rotate in Aaron Gray, Jason Smith and D.J. Mbenga is simply unfair. What Paul needs is a frontcourt that can play offense. What he has is tall garbage that is rated 27th in the league in scoring with 52 a game.
Another key matchup will be Kobe Bryant vs. the swarming defense that New Orleans enforces. They base their defense off of a loose zone that drags over players when needed for double teams and traps. This isolates players from the rest of the offense causing turnovers from steals or bad passes made across the court. It works really well and is one reason New Orleans is even in the playoffs. Kobe will need to adapt to this zone and find the open man wherever he is. Trust me, he will be there but the Black Mamba needs to find him. Again, it comes down to the big guys down low that will often be open. Later in the game, as Monty Williams is forced to play some of his bench players, the zone will become a little less disciplined. This is when the Lakers will essentially pull away.
The bench in New Orleans will need to really work wonders if they want to keep this series close. That means that Jarett Jack needs to come in off the bench and not miss a beat at all. Their acquisition of Jack from Toronto was barely talked about but he needs to get the attention he deserves by coming in and getting some points out of the backup players. Additionally, it’s the big guys off of the bench that have the hardest time maintaining that up-tempo and proactive defense. There is no time to be tired when Odom is on the floor.
Speaking of which, it’s up to Lamar to lead the secondary team for LA. The Candyman is having a career year in fewer minutes than before. His efficiency has shot through the roof and he deserves to be taken very seriously by the Hornets. Odom will also be the guy defending Landry and if done right, will ruin the series for him.
New Orleans has no business being in the playoffs and it will show when the Lakers beat them in an easy sweep. Outside of a hot start and mediocre run in January, this team has not shown much. They haven’t won more than three straight since that run and only have 12 wins on the season over teams that made the playoffs in the West. Williams is doing a good job teaching these boys defense but without West and another scoring component, LA will mop staples center with teal jerseys.