The Los Angeles Lakers came into tonight’s game looking to knock off the Hornets and advance to the Western Conference semi-finals. Prior to the game, the Lakers had an 8-1 record in close-out games in the last two seasons, and many of them occurred on the road. Kobe and the Lakers had a tough battle in New Orleans, and they had to face a pesky squad in order to move on to the next round.
The Lakers were welcomed by a hostile New Orleans crowd, and the “Beat LA” chants began well before tip-off. However, the veteran Lakers team embraced the negative slurs and used that to fuel their play.
Neither team started the game strong, nor were they able to hit their open looks. The Lakers were attacking the paint, but they failed to convert when getting close to the rim. Kobe Bryant took more of a facilitator role in the opening stages of the quarter, and he looked to give the big men the ball down low. The Lakers started the game missing six of the first eight shots and at the 7:22 mark of the first; Los Angeles trailed 8-6.
Kobe Bryant aggravated his injured ankle in the first quarter, and he was unable to become the explosive player people were accustomed to. Bryant ran gingerly across the floor, and he could not give enough lift on his jump-shots. Kobe missed his first three shots of the game, but he began to find an offensive rhythm after making two consecutive buckets. Kobe and the Lakers went on a 10-2 run in the opening period, and after an Andrew Bynum layup from a Kobe assists, the Lakers found themselves leading, 14-10.
Former Laker Trevor Ariza sparked the Hornets in the latter half of the first quarter, and his hustle-plays kept his team in the game. At the conclusion of the opening period, the Lakers held a mere 18-16 advantage. Despite the fact that New Orleans shot 33% from the field and committed five turnovers, the Lakers could not open up a comfortable lead.
The Lakers’ leading scorer after one was Andrew Bynum with six points, followed by Bryant and Fisher with four apiece.
Andrew Bynum was the only starter on the floor in the opening stages of the second quarter, and he played well alongside the bench players. The Lakers’ offense oriented through Bynum, and his seven-foot frame allowed him to dominate the paint over the smaller Hornets front-court. The Lakers were finding success on offense but feeding the ball to Bynum, but they were unable to thwart the Hornets on defense. The opposing guards were able to penetrate without much resistance, and after a Jarrett Jack lay-up, the Hornets found themselves trailing only 24-22.
Once Chris Paul was inserted back into the game, the Hornets were re-energized and the crowd was rejuvenated. The Hornets out-hustled the Lakers and they seemed more like the desperate team. Paul did not score his first basket until late in the second quarter, but his ability to find teammates for open looks allowed the Hornets to remain the game. The Lakers were able to score when they had possession; however, they could not find a way to limit the Hornets and their well-balanced offense.
The Lakers did, in fact, close out the period strong and they headed into half-time leading 40-34. Bynum was the team’s leading scorer was 12 points, followed by Kobe Bryant with nine.
Both teams traded baskets to begin the second half, and neither squad was able to put to put together an effective run. The Lakers were once again failing to hit their shots near the basket, and the Hornets were having trouble converting on their perimeter shots.
However, the Lakers front court of Gasol and Bynum finally began to work together and their size overwhelmed the Hornets. The Lakers’ defense was impeccable and the length of the bigs intimidated the Hornets and forced them to throw up desperation attempts late in the shot clock. For the fist time in the series both Gasol and Bynum found their touch on offense, and this allowed the Lakers to open up a 52-42 lead with 5:44 left in the third.
Even when Andrew Bynum was subbed out of the game, the Lakers maintained the same level of focus and intensity. The Lakers expanded their lead by the end of the third thanks to a stellar stretch by Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant. Artest made two impressive defensive stops in the waning second of the quarter, and Kobe gave the Lakers a 69-57 lead after two free-throws. Bryant scored 13 points in the period, and his offensive prowess deflated the Hornets and their fans.
The Lakers played their best 12 minutes of basketball in the third quarter despite a slow start to the period. Unlike previous games of the series, the Lakers had a comfortable advantage heading into the fourth.
The Lakers started the fourth quarter strong, and their ability to grab offensive rebounds allowed them to waste time off the game clock. Bynum continued to control the paint for the Lakers, and his productivity was something the Hornets could not match. The Lakers began the period on a 13-5 run, and they opened up a 78-62 advantage with a little over seven minutes remaining in the game.
Los Angeles eventually opened up a 20 point lead, and the Hornets’ body-language showed that they too believed the series was over. Jackson re-inserted his starters back into the game to make sure the lead stayed were it was, but the plan turned out to back-fire when Bryant was hit in the back of the head. For precautionary measures, Jackson took Kobe off the court and he received immediate medical attention.
New Orleans went on a diminutive run in the fourth, but the deficit was too large to overcome. After fighting with the defending-champions for six games, the Hornets could not force a decisive Game 7.
Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant lead the way for the Lakers, and they helped the team secure a 98–80 victory. The Lakers advanced to the second round for yet another season, and they will play the winner of the Dallas/Portland series.[phpbay]Lakers Jersey, 3, “”[/phpbay]