The feeling in most circles, this one included, was after grinding out a win in Game 2, the Lakers found their rhythm against an undermanned Hornets squad in Game 3. Sunday's Game 4, then, should have been more of the same. The Lakers would continue pressing their advantage inside, keep their hold on the series and put themselves in position to close things out Tuesday night at Staples.
Instead, after a great start, L.A. was dragged back into a slugfest, and couldn't land enough punches to escape without guaranteeing themselves a return trip for Game 6.
An unexpected result, for sure. Here's how it broke down...
1. Defensive Rebounding. In Game 3, the Lakers turned the Hornets into a one-and-done group, locking down the defensive glass as New Orleans had only four offensive boards. Sunday, they weren't nearly as clean. The first half was particularly problematic, when the Lakers delivered the totally non-productive pairing of allowing New Orleans to shoot a high percentage (52.5 percent) while allowing enough offensive boards (six) to help the Hornets to a plus-eight advantage in second chance points over the first 24 minutes, and 20 overall.
From there, feel free to criticize the team's overall effort on the glass. Over the first three games, the Lakers were +21 in total rebounding. Tonight, the Hornets outdid them by seven. Chris Paul had as many rebounds (13) as Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol combined.
That ain't good.
2. Lamar Odom. Six misses in seven tries, only four rebounds and nary an assist (against two turnovers) in 24 minutes. This on a night where Bynum and Gasol both had issues with foul trouble. Odom is often used by the Lakers as a security blanket, but Sunday he was a complete non-factor. At least in a positive sense. I'm sure the Hornets were happy with his contributions.
3. Movement. Early on, the Lakers were extremely crisp and active, moving the ball and themselves and generating points with excellent flow. L.A. logged five assists on their first seven field goals, but from there they were unable to generate easy looks against an aggressive Hornets defense. Some of that can be chalked up to the direction taken by the offense as the game went on- heavy on Bryant isos, which does tend towards stagnation with the other guys- but in the postseason particularly there's no reason why players should stand still.
Despite popular narratives, throughout most of the season, when the Lakers have struggled it's been because of faulty offense instead of defense. Sunday was no different. L.A. was hardly pristine on their end of the floor, particularly in the first half, but despite a spectacular from Chris Paul still limited the Hornets to 44 percent shooting overall, and only 44 points in the second half the last few coming at the line. But while the D improved as the game went on, at the other end things quickly went sour.
After scoring 17 points over the first six minutes, the Lakers were limited to 71 the rest of the way, averaging only 21 points over each of the final three quarters. The Hornets are a very strong defensive team, and showed it again Sunday night. They deserve a great deal of credit for the result, but the Lakers didn't do themselves many favors. Only in spurts did they make much of an effort to play through the post despite finding some success when they did (Gasol, for example, hit three of his first five in the opening quarter). Some of it gets back to the lack of ball and player movement- throughout most of the series the Hornets have demanded the Lakers made the extra pass or extra cut to gain entry into the paint, and as it's been in all but Game 3, L.A. generally didn't come through.
Instead, they allowed the game to devolve too deeply into isolation sets for Kobe, or plays off the pick and roll.
Part of the problem, though, was a lack of space on the block. The Hornets threw bodies en masse at the Lakers in the post, forcing kick outs, in part because L.A. never forced them into anything else. Which leads me to...
4. Outside Shooting. The Lakers gave the Hornets absolutely no reason to respect their perimeter game. 4-for-18 beyond the arc, and only 3-of-16 after the first quarter. Long 2's weren't exactly money, either. Throughout their championship run, the Lakers haven't been a particularly strong jump shooting team, and at different times it's been a problem.
Game 4 was one of those times.
5. Late Pau. He was part of the problems on the defensive glass, and while hardly dominant on the offensive side was also a victim of L.A.'s inability to utilize their length. Still, he had a chance to help the Lakers steal the night, and couldn't do it. Between the fumble of a great pass from Bryant (tough catch, has to be made) underneath late in the fourth and a missed free throw following an aggressive play to the bucket on L.A.'s next trip, Gasol left three critical points on the table. In the playoffs, those plays have to be made.
1. Kobe Bryant (First Half Distribution, Second Half Scoring). The first half for Bryant was more about what he didn't do than what he did. Kobe was 0-for-7 at the break, obviously not good, and even missed a free throw off a Paul technical foul for his first scoreless half in a playoff game since 2005, but never took the Lakers out of their offense by forcing shots. Instead, Bryant moved the ball, whether off the dribble with a kick to the perimeter or rising on the baseline for a jumper, then feeling the double come and dropping to Ron Artest on the block.
About 2:30 into the third, Bryant finally got himself a bucket, and from there put up the sort of offensive numbers poeple expect from him. He'd get three more field goals in the frame, including a sweeping hook in the lane over Trevor Ariza, and six more free throws for a total of 14 points, all but eight of L.A.'s total in the quarter.
He'd finish with 17 points on the game, boosting the Lakers in the third quarter, but making only one field goal in the fourth and, more importantly, suffered an ugly ankle sprain in the fourth quarter that could be a far larger story going forward than anything he did or didn't do in Game 4.
I noted my problems with L.A.'s overall offensive approach, some of which has to do with the way Kobe was deployed (too many trips starting with Bryant holding the ball), but Kobe made the passes in the second half, too, but didn't get the results, whether because of missed opportunities with jump shots, or a critical Gasol fumble late in the fourth.
It wasn't a perfect night- I'm not going to paper over 5-for-18 from the floor- but bad shooting doesn't automatically mean a bad game, overall. The poor mark from the floor early hurt, but Kobe also generated points off the pass. In the second half, I disliked the general tenor of the team's offense more than Bryant's decision making.
And it's not like the Lakers had much else going on. Once Artest's explosion of O ended, the supporting cast went from generally quiet to really, really quiet. It's all relative.
2. Turnovers. On a night the Lakers didn't do much offensively, they didn't cheat themselves out of trips down the floor. Only nine turnovers, an excellent figure against a good defensive team on the road in the playoffs.
3. Ron Artest. 7-of-10 for 16 points, plus four rebounds and two steals. Yes, it was a little front loaded- all 16 came before halftime, and he only took one shot after the break- but 16 points is 16 points. And when Ron Artest chips in with 16 points by halftime, the Lakers should have more than 45 at the break and 88 overall.