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NBA Playoffs: The Hornets stun the Lakers

Apr 17, 2011, 8:02 PM EDT

New Orleans Hornets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game One Getty Images

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.

  1. hnirobert3 - Apr 17, 2011 at 8:12 PM

    Pretty sure this would have never happened on a Michael Jordan led team.

    • efueshe - Apr 18, 2011 at 1:40 AM

      Is that why his 1984 got swept out of the playoffs in the first round in 1984 by the Bucks? What about when his 1986 and ’87 teams got swept out of the playoffs by the Celtics? What about when they lost in 5 games to the Pistons in 87, 6 in again to the Pistons in ’88 and in 7 games against them in 1989? Please, no more historical revisionism, because the sooner that people realize that Michael Jordan was actually drafted in 1984, played that whole time and did not reach the Finals till 1991, the sooner people will realize that (1) Michael Jordan was not this perfect, ethereal being that never missed shots or had turnovers and (2) what Kobe has done as the leader of this team is quite astonishing and this loss does not “prove” any conclusion that Jordan is better than Bryant.

      • hnirobert3 - Apr 18, 2011 at 8:13 AM

        So we’re comparing Jordan’s 1st six years in the league (when he only had Pippen, Grant, etc. for 3 of those) to a present day Kobe (in his 11th season)? Apples and oranges.

        Jordan >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Kobe Bean Bryant

      • loungefly74 - Apr 18, 2011 at 9:11 AM

        wow. those are some great points! i like the info provided! nice stats!
        man…you said it.
        c’mon, hnirobert3, usually, you make good points, but efueshe countered strong and made you sweat like Nixon. cause you said initially, “Pretty sure this would have never happened on a Michael Jordan led team.”…and than you said, “So we’re comparing Jordan’s 1st six years in the league (when he only had Pippen, Grant, etc. for 3 of those) to a present day Kobe (in his 11th season)? Apples and oranges.”…those 2 statements conflict each other! a career is a career! eh, no big deal…but the jordan comment was just out of place.

        I love this: Please, no more historical revisionism, because the sooner that people realize that Michael Jordan was actually drafted in 1984, played that whole time and did not reach the Finals till 1991, the sooner people will realize that (1) Michael Jordan was not this perfect, ethereal being that never missed shots or had turnovers

        that is gold!

  2. efueshe - Apr 17, 2011 at 8:23 PM

    “For the first time in the Phil Jackson era, the Lakers lost a series opener at home.” 2009 against the Rockets?? And the Lakers didn’t “forget that they have two of the best big men in the league”; Pau Gasol lofted around the perimeter for much of the game and lolly-gagged on transition defense. You quoted Phil Jackson but truly failed to mention his quote in context: Pau was not IN THE MIDDLE ENOUGH for anyone to take advantage of offensive skills vs. Okafor or Gray (SMH).

    • aqzi - Apr 17, 2011 at 11:08 PM

      It’s supposed to say that it’s the first time the Lakers coached by Phil Jackson lost a playoff opener at home.

      http://espn.go.com/blog/truehoop/post/_/id/27494/paul-bests-kobe-as-hornets-take-game-1

      “The New Orleans Hornets provided the second stunner of the day upsetting the Los Angeles Lakers to take a 1-0 series lead.

      According to Elias, this is was the 16th time a team coached by Phil Jackson opened their postseason at home, but the first time the team lost. “

      • efueshe - Apr 17, 2011 at 11:25 PM

        Well he’s wrong because in 2009 the Lakers lost while being coached by Phil Jackson, at home, vs. the Rockets, in game 1.

      • efueshe - Apr 17, 2011 at 11:28 PM

        OH! Now I see what you are saying but you can clearly see where one would get mistaken

      • aqzi - Apr 18, 2011 at 3:43 PM

        Yeah, kinda a word twist. Opener of the playoffs, not the opener of a series.

  3. avermaver - Apr 17, 2011 at 8:58 PM

    die Lakers die

  4. dysraw1 - Apr 17, 2011 at 9:19 PM

    chris paul was brilliant, the question is can he he do it 3 more times

  5. thekingdave - Apr 17, 2011 at 11:33 PM

    One would get mistaken? It says series in this recap and as you stated, the Rockets won game 1 of the conference semis at Staples in 2009.

    • efueshe - Apr 17, 2011 at 11:58 PM

      Yes it says series, which round 2 vs. the Rockets was. If he said playoff opener then I would have made the mistake but as you can see in the quote he said series opener, therefore it was his mistake.

  6. passerby23 - Apr 18, 2011 at 12:27 AM

    Expect the Lakers to come back in Game 2 and pound the ball inside to Gasol and Bynum. Maybe the Lakers were reading their press that this would be a sweep. I think they’ll show up from now on, but still, Chris Paul is going to give them fits. The glaring weakness for the Lakers is the Hornets’ greatest asset.

  7. andyhr17 - Apr 18, 2011 at 9:33 AM

    As much as I despise the Lakers and would love to see them get upset, this has to be attributed to a group of underdogs playing out of their minds vs. a lackadaisical veteran team playing well below their ability.

    • loungefly74 - Apr 18, 2011 at 10:01 AM

      yes…agree. only having 3 turnovers is excellent. gasol didnt show up, yeah, the hornets wanted it more. actually, i like this loss (Laker fan) because they need something like this to light the fire.

  8. omniusprime - Apr 18, 2011 at 11:06 AM

    No problem the Lakers lose game 1 and the Hornets will discover they’ve woken a sleeping giant. Rest assured Pau Gasol will come back next game with a vengeance and the Lakers are going to pound the ball into the middle with Gasol, Bynum and Odom taking care of business in the paint. No need to worry for Laker fans as Phil Jackson will figure out how to counter Paul’s offense. Getting Steve Blake back from the chickenpox will help the Killer B’s be killer again. Kobe Bryant is the greatest basketball player in the world and the Repeat World Champion Lakers will Threepeat this June!

  9. chargerdillon - Apr 18, 2011 at 11:37 AM

    If the Hornets shot that well and were defended against that poorly in every game, they would beat virtually any team in the NBA. Unfortunately for them this is a 7 game series.

  10. fouldwimmerlaik - Apr 18, 2011 at 11:49 AM

    I have been sitting in a dark corner of my parent’s basement since the game ended holding my “Kobe Bryant Action Figure – Playoff Edition” trying to convince myself this game was just a dream.

    It wasn’t. But I am OK now. Go Lakers (sniffle).

  11. davidly - Apr 18, 2011 at 6:57 PM

    Translation: If LA doesn’t play better, they’re gonna lose. Friggin’ rocket scientists!

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