The Lakers welcomed the New Orleans Hornets to the Staples Center for a Sunday night match-up between two teams looking to improve their positioning in the Western Conference standings. Entering the game the Lakers were 14-1 since the All-Star break and had won six games in a row. The game was also a potential post-season preview, as the Hornets and Lakers would face one another in the first round if the playoffs started today. Tonight was the final match-up of the regular season between the Lakers and the Hornets, and Los Angeles was looking to sweep the season series.
The Lakers opened the game looking to utilize their size advantage. After losing David West to a torn ACL the Hornets knew that they would be unable to compete with Los Angeles in the paint. The Laker big men played volleyball around the rim, and sucked in rebounds to get themselves high percentage shots around the rim. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum both were active early, and it allowed Los Angeles to get ahead early.
Another bright spot for the Lakers was the aggressive play of Kobe Bryant, who attacked the basket on a consistent basis early. Bryant has been known more as a jump-shooter at this point in his career, but that wasn’t evident early on. Kobe has been on a scoring tear lately, averaging just under 40 points per game in the last two games. Bryant scored 11 points in the first quarter and Los Angeles led the Hornets 30-19 heading into the second quarter.
The Lakers began the second quarter with Andrew Bynum and a host of reserve players. Phil Jackson has been unhappy with the recent play of the bench, especially after a poor showing against the Clippers on Friday night. The struggles for the bench continued in the second quarter of tonight’s game as well. Other than a fastbreak dunk from Shannon Brown the bench shot 2-11 from the floor during their stretch on the court. The Hornets climbed back into the game and reduced the Lakers double-digit lead to only four.
After the starters came back into the game the Lakers were able to regain control. Led by Bryant and Gasol the Lakers built their lead back to double digits. The starters played an efficient quarter and closed out the second on a 17-5 run. Heading into the half the Lakers were leading the Hornets 57-41.
Entering the second half the Lakers had a chance to put away New Orleans and coast to an easy victory. However, that task got more difficult just 30 seconds into the third when Andrew Bynum picked up his fourth personal foul. With the Lakers losing their starting center for the remainder of the third quarter New Orleans finally had an opening to gain an advantage. The Hornets took advantage and pulled in several offensive boards, and it resulted in second chance points for New Orleans.
After the Hornets managed to cut the Laker lead to single digits halfway through the quarter Los Angeles got back on track offensively. A fading jump-shot from Bryant coupled with a dunk from Gasol to push the lead back to 15. It seemed as if the Lakers were toying with the Hornets, relaxing until the lead seemed in jeopardy before pushing it back to a comfortable margin. The Lakers momentum was in a dip as the third quarter ended. Heading into the fourth the Lakers led the Hornets 74-63.
As has been the trend recently the Los Angeles bench cost them early in the fourth. Bynum picked up his fifth foul on the offensive end, and Los Angeles’ offense struggled. There is no question Jackson’s frustration with the reserves was going to continue after tonight’s effort. The bench players were spending too much time dribbling and suffered from poor ball rotation and a lack of offensive rhythm.
Phil Jackson is known for his decision to leave his reserves in the game for extended periods of time, especially during periods of adversity. Jackson left the bench in with Andrew Bynum until the four minute mark of the final quarter, and they managed to maintain the double digit lead for the Lakers. With just under four minutes left in the fourth Jackson put Bryant, Gasol, and Ron Artest back into the game to finish things off.
With time running out the Lakers proved to be too much for the Hornets. As was the case for much of the game the Lakers pulled ahead when New Orleans threatened to make things close. A clutch basket from Bryant that drew a foul increased the Laker lead back to double digits with just two minutes remaining. Another basket from Odom combined with two free throws from Bryant sealed the deal for the Lakers. Once time ran out the Lakers had extended their winning streak to nine at the Staples Center and eight overall. The Lakers also got the season sweep of the Hornets with their 102-84 victory.