Series preview: Lakers vs. Hornets

By David Thorpe and Anthony Macri

It would not be a season in contention for the Los Angeles Lakers without more drama than a daytime soap opera. And so, despite Andrew Bynum’s health and injury status, Phil Jackson’s public retirement plans, Ron Artest’s trade demands, and an end-of-season meltdown that almost had them hurtling down to the fourth seed, is it any surprise that the Lakers still managed to finish with the West’s second-best record and the NBA’s third-best scoring differential (behind only Miami and Chicago)? Certainly, nothing came easy for the two-time defending champs this season. And the postseason will be no different, as L.A. enters it with another Bynum knee injury to worry about and little positive momentum after dropping five of their last seven games (and a final game regular-season overtime win over the lowly Sacramento Kings). They certainly know all about drama in Los Angeles.

The New Orleans Hornets were the talk of the league for the first three weeks after winning eight in a row to start the season and eleven of their first twelve overall. Since then, however, they have been mostly pedestrian, and it is only through a combination of smoke and mirrors and the sheer will of Chris Paul that they made it as far as they have. A defense rated the league’s eighth best can only do so much, especially when forward David West went down with a knee injury toward the end of March.

Zero. That’s the number of wins the Hornets have against the Lakers in four meetings this season, the most recent of which was an 18-point drubbing in Los Angeles. However, things get even worse for New Orleans. Without having West to help shoulder the burden in that March 27 meeting, Paul played one of his worst games of the season, shooting just 4-for-10 from the field for 10 points to go along with nine assists.

Los Angeles could definitely use this series to find its footing after a rocky ending to the regular season. New Orleans, meanwhile, will have to hold out hope for a few brilliant games from Paul in order to steal a win or two from the defending champs.

Five keys to the series:

Lineup juggling

Imagine for a moment you are coaching the Lakers in the closing minutes against a solid playoff team. The score is tied and you expect the game to come down to the last possession. Bynum is healthy and available. Name your frontcourt. Do you go with pure size and length, with Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom on the floor? Would you prefer to have one of the heroes of last year’s playoffs in Ron Artest out there?

One of the questions that Los Angeles can answer during the course of this playoff series is what players make up its primary lineup. While it is good to have different combinations ready for specific situations, a lack of clarity has hurt the Lakers. Too much talent is not necessarily a bad problem to have, but it must be handled with care, or players begin to feel overlooked and under-appreciated, and those feelings can be magnified in the playoffs.

This might not be as big an issue with Bynum’s injury, but the Lakers should be able to use his absence to pull together a less crowded and more streamlined frontcourt. If they can get those players on same page, it goes a long way toward finding the right mix in the future when Bynum returns.

Taking care and taking away

During the regular season, New Orleans was one of the better clubs at taking care of the basketball, turning the ball over the third-fewest times of any team in the league. The Hornets were also proficient at takeaways, as they finished the season ranked in the top third in total steals. Of course, they can thank Paul for much of that success. For the Hornets to have a chance, they will need to perform extremely well in these two areas in addition to any spectacular individual performances they receive.

Los Angeles will not make it easy on New Orleans, however. The Lakers are not a turnover-prone club, and they do such a good job on the boards that they make it hard for teams to gain extra possessions or second-chance points. The real key for the Hornets will be to create more “50-50” balls (times when possession of the basketball is in doubt -- it can happen after a deflection, or after a shot when the ball is being tipped without any clear advantage) and then to win more than their fair share of those balls.

Containing Chris Paul

One of the real challenges for the Lakers will be containing Paul. This should serve as excellent practice for potential future playoff matchups, as it is a virtual guarantee that Los Angeles will face better opponents with comparable point guards (such as Russell Westbrook for Oklahoma City, Tony Parker for San Antonio, or Derrick Rose for Chicago). As such, its approach to guarding Paul must be workmanlike, and it should set out with very specific goals in mind to measure how it’s doing.

Paul is one of the true masters at using ball screens and creating mismatches. Without West to provide a secondary punch, CP3’s attack may be limited, but it is still formidable. During the season, the Lakers often “busted” ball screens, meaning they took the ball defender and placed him high to force the offensive player back to the baseline where the help was. Will they continue using just that strategy? Or will use this series as an opportunity to test out a variety of ways to guard the ball screen, whether it be via use of a corralling string out or a hard hedge and recovery, or even a blitz trap?

One of the areas of weakness for the Lakers over the course of the season has been guarding the smaller, jet-quick guards who can score and lead their teams. Paul is the best in that regard in the league, and will test both the individual defenders and the team defense in L.A. This kind of real-game practice setting is invaluable for a team desperately in search of consistency.

Small victories

While the Lakers can probably afford to look at this series at the macro level, and consider it in relation to the rest of the postseason and their overall goals for the year, New Orleans simply does not have that luxury. For the Hornets, even looking at each game in isolation is too broad a view to really expect to win. Instead, they will want to break down each game itself into winnable segments, with a goal of winning as many segments as possible. By keeping their focus on manageable pieces, New Orleans can savor small victories when they happen and move on from failures much easier.

The problem for the Lakers facing the Hornets in the opening round is the reality that this team needs no additional reasons to lack focus or commitment. In order to fight off the complacency and overconfidence that may set in, expect Los Angeles to set up achievable goals in areas other than the scoring column. For example, the Lakers should commit to a certain number of deflections in a given quarter, or to at least three separate scoring runs of 8-0 or more.

By forcing them to consider specific tasks they may be able to rediscover the focus that makes them the best team in the league.

Team play vs. Isolations

Over the last few years, Los Angeles has gradually moved away from the pure Triangle offense that characterized their play when Fred “Tex” Winter was still on the bench. They still play within the general structure of the Triangle, but they also incorporate more ball-screen actions and high-low actions with Bynum and Gasol. One thing remains constant, however, and that is how much better the Lakers are when they pass the ball effectively.

In their wins this season, Los Angeles averages nearly five more assists per game than in their losses. They assisted on 59 percent of their field goals made in games they won. In games they lost, they assisted on just 53.7 percent of their made field goals. While part of that disparity can be attributed to the defense of the team they faced, it is a large enough differential to indicate that the Lakers may play differently in wins than they do in losses.

Typically, this statistic points to the quantity of isolations and players having to create individually. The lower the percentage, the more isolation is present in the offense. Consistently striving for assisting on at least 55 percent of field goals is typically a winning formula. If the Lakers can make this goal a priority for their series against the Hornets (and beyond), they can take control here and throughout the postseason.

Prediction: Lakers in five