The Lakers quest for another NBA championship began this afternoon when they hosted the New Orleans Hornets in Game 1 of the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Even though the Lakers were heavily favored, in the playoffs any team has a chance to win. The Lakers would need tough defense and aggressive offense to defeat the Hornets and win Game 1.
The game began with the Hornets making the Lakers uncomfortable on both ends of the floor. After opening the first with several jump shots the Lakers seemed out of rhythm. New Orleans was able to capitalize on lackadaisical Los Angeles defense by penetrating and getting to the rim. The Hornets’ biggest weapon is obviously PG Chris Paul, who gave the Lakers fits in the first quarter.
With David West out for the season the Hornets knew they would have to rely on other sources to provide offense. They found some from Marco Belinelli, who scored eight early points to help the Hornets build their lead. At the end of the first 12 minutes of play the Hornets led the Lakers 26-24.
The Hornets opened the second quarter on a 6-0 run to immediately push their lead to double digits. After the Lakers won all four contests in the regular season it was evident New Orleans was looking to end that streak. The New Orleans bench managed to maintain their lead while Chris Paul was on the bench, and once the guard checked back in they took complete control of the game.
Paul was a dominant force on both ends of the court. He was able to pick apart the Los Angeles defense by penetrating and finding open teammates. On the other end he was leading the defensive effort against the Lakers. Multiple steals led to fast break opportunities for the Hornets that helped them build their first double digit lead. At the half Paul’s numbers were that of a one-man wrecking crew: 11 points, 10 assists, 3 rebounds and 3 steals.
The final sequence of the quarter ended up one that needed to be replayed several times in order to process all the information. After a contested jump shot Bryant appeared injured and remained laying on the floor. With Bryant down Chris Paul hit an open three that left the Lakers just three seconds in the half. Ron Artest dribbled the ball up to halfcourt and heaved a shot at the buzzer that managed to find the bottom of the net.
The bigger concern for Los Angeles, however, was the still-injured Bryant who had yet to get up after going down the possession before. After several minutes Bryant was able to get up and walk to the locker room under his own power. At the half the Lakers trailed the Hornets 55-47.
The Lakers, Bryant included, came back onto the court for the second half looking to solve the problems the Hornets had created in the first. They started the third on a run and managed to pull the game within a single point after a flagrant foul on former Laker Trevor Ariza. However, a key Chris Paul steal and three point shot ended the Lakers run and the momentum they had established.
Los Angeles proved their championship caliber as the quarter progressed, and used a boost from their leader to do so. Bryant scored consecutive baskets, including one that showcased Bryant shooting while nearly laying on his stomach, to pull the Lakers back within a single possession. Los Angeles capitalized on New Orleans’ missed shots by controlling the defensive glass as well.
The Lakers managed to control the clock by attacking the basket and drawing fouls. This allowed them to score while stopping the clock and limiting the Hornets chances to run. After a first half that saw way too many jump shots the entire team seemed ready to get to the paint. Bryant, Lamar Odom, and even Shannon Brown all got into the post and got high percentage looks out of it.
New Orleans wasn’t about to back down, and proved they are just as ready for the playoffs by hanging tough and maintaining their lead throughout the third quarter. Even though the Lakers tied it on two separate occasions, the Hornets took a 73-72 lead into the fourth quarter.
With Paul on the bench to start the fourth the Lakers were looking to finally grab the lead and take control of the game. Unfortunately for Los Angeles their defense prevented this from happening. New Orleans got into the paint repeatedly. Their aggressive play resulted in consistent lay-ups and fouls on the Lakers post players. One of the few things keeping the Lakers in the game was poor free throw shooting from New Orleans, who missed multiple opportunities to build their lead at the line.
After Paul checked back into the game the Lakers found other ways to once again climb back into the game. Several nice possessions from Ron Artest resulted in a lay-up and a Kobe Bryant jumper. All the Lakers fouls caught up to them with just under seven minutes to play, though, as the team went over the foul limit – rewarding the Hornets with free throws each time they committed a foul the rest of the game.
Los Angeles cut the lead back down to three after a long three point shot from Bryant, but continued to have trouble defensively. The Lakers committed too many fouls that resulted in free throws for the Hornets.
Ultimately it looked as if Chris Paul was going to be too much for the Lakers to handle. Consecutive jump shots from the Hornets guard increased the New Orleans lead back to seven with four minutes remaining in the game. It also began to show on the other end of the floor, as Bryant began to force bad shots that resulted in fast break opportunities for the Hornets.
Much like in the Lakers last playoff game, Game 7 of the NBA Finals last June, Ron Artest was a key player down the stretch for Los Angeles in this game too. Artest scored seven straight points for the Lakers at one point down the stretch, and managed to keep the Lakers in it. However, no matter how close the Lakers got the game the Hornets always had an answer. Chris Paul ended up being the catalyst late in the game that sealed the game for the Hornets.
There are many things to look at after a loss like this, but for the Lakers the absence of Pau Gasol was huge. His line was average, but Los Angeles needs much more than average from their second best player. The Lakers also lacked serious contributions from Odom, who scored just ten points in the game. When the clock finally ran out the Hornets shocked Los Angeles and all of the NBA, beating the Lakers 109-100.
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