Just like the Lakers, New Orleans opened the season 8-0 before falling to Dallas by three, and then won three more to reach 11-1 and rank first in the NBA while beating quality opponents like San Antonio, Denver, Miami and the Mavericks in a back-to-back rematch. But since then, the Hornets have struggled, going 7-12 to bring their record to 18-13, down to sixth in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, the Lakers certainly haven’t been playing good basketball, losing three straight games by double figures to fall to 21-10, tied with Utah for third in the West.
As much as it’s difficult to look past what’s plaguing the Lakers right now, whether it’s Kobe Bryant’s field goal percentage in the last five games (39 percent), Pau Gasol not playing like Pau Gasol (15.8 points per game in last five), Andrew Bynum not being fully ready yet (despite looking better against the Spurs) or a lack of consistent defensive energy, Phil Jackson is taking the long view. He, of course, has been down this road with a twice-defending champion three times in the past.
“The idea is to come into the playoffs in the best shape you can as a team,” said Jackson. “You want to have home court advantage in the first round, get your game going. We’re still 50 games away from there. There’s a long ways to go.
“The contagion is to be calm under duress, and that’s what we want them to have. Anger is OK. Frustration is going to happen when you don’t shoot the ball well.”
Against New Orleans, shooting it well should prove important, because an athletic, stingy Hornets D has allowed 100 points only seven times this season. Plagued by a lack of typical ball movement, the Lakers have failed to score more than 82 points in their last three losses.
Bryant’s 8-for-27 shooting struggle against San Antonio typified that lack of ball movement, and had both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol suggesting after the game that the Lakers need to return to their general game plan of getting the basketball inside. At the same time, the Lakers acknowledged that Bryant’s aggressive nature on offense can be both positive and necessary, if not for an entire game.
“I liked his energy to come out and set a tone,” said Jackson. “I thought in the 4th quarter he had a chance to get himself going again, even though in 3rd quarter nothing seemed to go right for him. He came out with a purpose and established something. He took the first seven shots, six shots; made the first (three), and then it was time to slow it down a bit and get everybody involved.”
Bryant was at least happy to see the team’s defense improve, and it did particularly in the first half until all the missed shots in the second stanza led to easy run outs upon which San Antonio capitalized.
“The effort was there,” said No. 24. “It was much better. I couldn’t put the ball in the basket and it snowballed from there. It’s my responsibility to make them. I had some really good looks. I gotta put those down, period.”
Bryant’s always been able to shift his game around what the defense shows him when he wants to, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him engage Gasol, Bynum and Lamar Odom early against the Hornets, who will likely start former Laker — not to mention the guy who defended Bryant during pregame warm ups — Trevor Ariza on Bryant. The Hornets also start shooter Marco Belinelli on the wing, with David West and Emeka Okafor manning the front court positions and, of course, Chris Paul running the show.
Paul’s scoring and assist numbers are down from a season ago alongside his minutes, as he’s playing only 34.8 per game instead of the 38 he averaged in 2009-10, due in part to a sore knee. Nonetheless, the Lakers expect a steady diet of CP3 pick and roll action, and will have to show that they can defend it.
The contest tips at 5 p.m. Pacific, and you can watch on KCAL/9 HD or listen on 710 ESPN radio.