With the rubber match secured and series control reestablished, for now, everyone can exhale.
I'll say this for Kobe, the man doesn't just play while hurt. He throws all possible caution to the wind when it comes to logical approaches in this state.
First, he refuses to get an MRI on his injured ankle like any sane person whose body is their temple would do. From there, it's not about limping all game to lend a complimentary helping hand, as many (myself included) felt would be the case. Instead, Bryant mustered as much or more aggression as he would on his teenage ankles. The lane was attacked -- often to great effect -- and he offered some of his most electric elevation since that time he introduced his midsection to Steve Nash's face.
By any sensible measure, the approach doesn't hold up to sound reason.
But guess what? It worked.
Bryant's evening actually started out with a whimper and a lot of ominous hobbling, as he struggled to contain Trevor Ariza. He also didn't take a shot in the first quarter and looked generally out of sorts. Twitter was chock full of folks wondering whether the Lakers might be better off with a minimal Mamba presence, particularly after the second unit pushed the Lakers out of an early hole. Bryant eventually rejoined the action in the second quarter, and after a few mixed bag possessions, it was as if he just said "Screw it."
That's when he launched himself from between the circles to throw down with vicious force over Emeka Okafor. This was just a ridiculous blend of hops and brutality, one of two wicked dunks for Kobe. But beyond the shocking showmanship, Bryant's contagious energy sparked a team-wide ripple effect that can't possibly be overestimated.
I have no earthly idea how these feats were pulled off, but like a lot of things involving Kobe, attempts to understand are an exercise in futility. Better to just sit back and say, "Wow!" His night rounded out with 19 points on 13 shots, four dimes, better defense and another chapter in a storied career.
The old man is known mostly for crunch time theatrics during the playoffs, but tonight, he went to work early. Fisher chipped in nine first half points, three points and a steal, and his fingerprints were all over a critical second quarter push when the lead was regained for good. Yes, Chris Paul enjoyed some success with Fish shadowing him, but lest we forget, he's Chris-freaking-Paul. But when the dust finally settled, CP3 was sitting on 20 points and 12 dimes, which is pretty easy to swallow. The goal is to prevent Paul from going absolutely bananas, and Fisher had a hand in accomplishing that mission.
Among the Killer Bees and Lamar Odom, nobody's stats really stood out, and their collective shooting stunk. However, as a group, the second unit came up huge. Down nine to begin the second quarter, they sparked an 8-0 run over the opening 2:27 to bring the Lakers back within one and prevent the contest from spinning out of control. A seven point lead at the fourth quarter outset wasn't just protected, it was stretched to put the finishing touches on a double digit margin of victory.
Individually, each reserve found ways to make a difference. The aforementioned second quarter run was largely fueled by two downtown buckets from Shannon Brown. Steve Blake dished out three assists and hit a big corner three to push the lead to 16 with 6:37 left to play. Matt Barnes snared four offensive rebounds, and they all directly led to either baskets or trips to the line. As for LO, eight of his twelve shots refused to fall, but he canned four free throws in as many tries and grabbed seven rebounds.
Defense after the first quarter
As bad as the lockdown was during the opening quarter, it was pretty darn good over the remaining three. The Hornets never shot more than 41 percent in the second, third or fourth quarters, and were held to 38 percent in the second half. Shots were better contested. Blake dove to the ground to force a jump ball with Aaron Gray. Pressure from Fisher and Gasol forced Paul to dribble off his foot, one of 17 total turnovers for the Hornets.
The increased effectiveness can be immediately gauged by Paul's numbers over the final 24 minutes. Nine points and just four assists. That, as the saying goes, will get 'er done.
Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum
I wouldn't say either was a truly dominating force, and Gasol's individual D occasionally left something to be desired. Then again, the two combined for 34 points, 18 rebounds, and five blocks in what was easily their best showing as a frontcourt tandem in this series. In particular, Gasol resembling himself again was a welcome sight. Some time was required to get going, as Pau finished the first quarter with 6 points on seven shots and no rebounds. But a groove was eventually discovered, highlighted by a third quarter with five points, three boards and a trio of blocks. He also chipped in four total assists and hustled to draw a first quarter charge against Ariza and slow the ex-Laker's considerable roll.
And perhaps most importantly, Pau decided to push back after enduring four games' worth of shoves from Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor.
If tonight represented a predictable baseline from the bigs, the Lakers will be in considerably better shape moving forward.
Artest will probably be remembered most tonight for receiving the J Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award before the game, a well-deserved honor commemorating the small forward's work as a mental health advocate. But on the court, it was another solid showing for a guy who's quietly served as the Lakers' rock in this first round.
First quarter defense
Certain things in life must be seen in person to be believed. The Boogey man. The Loch Ness Monster. A road team shooting 81.3 percent for a quarter in the playoffs. I can vouch with my own eyes about the third item. The Hornets' opening 12 minutes were just silly good. They sank 13 of their 16 attempts, with Paul quarterbacking like he was a Magic-Stockton-Oscar hybrid. Eight assists in all, which set a record for a quarter against the Lakers in the playoffs. Ariza was a perfect 4-4 from the field, and the Hornets drained a trio of treys. In a nutshell, they looked unstoppable.
While this torrid pace couldn't possibly be maintained, things appeared to be spinning out of control. Thankfully, order was restored before it was too late.
I don't mean to sound like a whiner, but the officiating in this game left something to be desired. Unless, of course, I didn't get the memo about the rule allowing Ariza to blatantly travel at will and absurd amounts of contact now kosher. This isn't an area where I typically complain, as I tend to think whatever bad calls usually even in the wash. (Along those lines, I actually thought both teams had plenty to gripe about.) And honestly, the ineptitude wasn't the controversial kind capable of swinging a game, but just plain annoying.
Then again, the Lakers seemed particularly fired up by the whistles and no-calls, which in turn may have played a role in the second quarter rally. So I guess it wasn't all bad.