In a couple of months, we might just look back on Kobe Bryant's three-pointer in the waning seconds of Wednesday's game in Sacramento as the most important shot of the season. Before Bryant tied the game, the Los Angeles Lakers were on the verge of losing the game and slipping to third in the Western Conference standings. That one spot could be crucial. Not only does it ensure the Lakers home-court advantage should they reach the conference semifinals, it also meant a more favorable matchup in the opening round. Instead of facing a Portland Trail Blazers team that has given them trouble in recent years, the Lakers get a New Orleans Hornets squad missing its leading scorer, David West.
Earlier Wednesday, the Lakers got good news when an MRI on Andrew Bynum's right knee revealed he suffered no ligament damage when he hyperextended the knee the previous night against the San Antonio Spurs. The injury looked scary and was initially painful, but ultimately left Bynum with only a bone bruise. He's expected to be back on the floor for the start of this series.
WHEN THE LAKERS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 89.6 possessions per 48 minutes (20th NBA)
Lakers Offensive Rating: 112.4 points per 100 possessions (7th NBA)
New Orleans Defensive Rating: 106.8 points per 100 possessions (9th NBA)
Just three teams in the NBA improved more on defense over 2009-10 than the Hornets, who were elite defensively for much of the season. Rookie head coach Monty Williams built a balanced unit around center Emeka Okafor, sprinkling in zone looks at times to keep opponents guessing. New Orleans ranked second in the league in defensive rebound percentage and was also in the top 10 in forcing turnovers and keeping opponents off the free throw line.
Things changed, however, when West went down. The Hornets were able to replace West on offense with Carl Landry, acquired from the Sacramento Kings at the trade deadline, but the drop from West to Landry at the defensive end was much more significant. Landry is undersized and has poor help instincts. He's also become a major liability on the defensive glass, grabbing just 11.1 percent of opponents' misses this season. That's about average for a shooting guard.
With West, New Orleans held opponents 3.6 points per 100 possessions below their typical offensive output. Even discounting Wednesday's season finale, which the Hornets had little incentive to win (a loss kept alive their chances of falling to eighth and avoiding the Lakers), that fell to 3.7 points per 100 possessions worse than average with Landry at power forward. New Orleans was better than average defensively when adjusted for opponent just once in the 10 games after West went down.
All of this spells trouble against the Lakers frontcourt if at full strength. With Okafor busy dealing with Bynum in the post, Landry will have to defend Pau Gasol, a matchup that is lopsided in the Lakers' favor. All Gasol has done against the Hornets this season is make 70.5 percent of his shots, including 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting with 16 boards in the lone meeting after West went down. Bynum has been nearly as effective, shooting 64.1 percent and averaging 15.0 points. Things will get little better for New Orleans when the Lakers go to the bench, as Lamar Odom has shot 55.6 percent and averaged 14.5 points against them.
As our Sebastian Pruiti noted earlier this week, the notion that the Lakers went away from the post during their late-season losing streak isn't backed up by the numbers. Expect them to get the big men involved early and often in this series. The Lakers also have a pretty fair secondary option in Bryant. As Pruiti explained, the key is running isolation plays for Bryant rather than bringing extra defenders over by having a screen set for him. That figures to be especially true in this series. According to Synergy Sports' series preview, the Hornets rank 28th in the league at defending isolation plays, while the Lakers are as effective at running isos as almost anyone in the NBA.
Former Laker Trevor Ariza will likely get the defensive assignment on Bryant. Ariza is athletic and long, but miscast as a stopper. Unless Ariza's experience defending him in practice for several years gives him an edge, Bryant's savvy and experience figure to allow him to create good looks. Bryant averaged 26.8 points in the four head-to-head meetings. More pertinent is that he shot 48.8 percent with a True Shooting Percentage of 57.5 percent. If Bryant scores with that kind of efficiency in this series, the Lakers will be nearly impossible to beat.
WHEN NEW ORLEANS HAS THE BALL
Pace: 87.3 possessions per 48 minutes (29th NBA)
New Orleans Offensive Rating: 108.2 points per 100 possessions (19th NBA)
Lakers Defensive Rating: 105.5 points per 100 possessions (6th NBA)
This end of the floor is really all about Chris Paul. The Hornets might be more dependent on Paul for offense than any other team is on a single player. After knee surgery, Paul has changed his game this season, becoming more of a traditional point guard and less of a scorer. His value remained largely unchanged, with the exception of a stretch in February where Paul seemed to wear down and struggled badly.
In this series, the Lakers' weak defense at the point probably isn't as big of a problem as it might seem at first glance. The change the Lakers made to their pick-and-roll defense, as documented by Pruiti, was potentially made with an eye toward the San Antonio Spurs but will also help the Lakers slow Paul by keeping him out of the paint. In the first three head-to-head meetings, before the Lakers had really made the change, Paul averaged 17.7 points and 10.7 assists. He had 10 points and nine assists in the last game between the teams. More telling is Paul's shot selection. Per Hoopdata.com, he did not have a shot at the rim in either of the last two games against the Lakers and took seven of his 10 shots from 16-23 feet in the last meeting.
Where else can New Orleans get offense? Landry is an obvious candidate. He's averaged 14.9 points since replacing West, which improves to 17.6 a night when you take out the last three games of limited minutes. Enjoying working with Paul as part of the Hornets' two-man game, Landry is shooting 51.8 percent from the field in that stretch. In this series, Landry may want to utilize more of his midrange game to counter the Lakers' length in the paint. He did find room to score 24 points and get to the free throw line nine times when he started against L.A.
After that, it's a crapshoot. Since leaving the Lakers, Ariza has been an offensive disaster. Moving back into a more appropriate role in the offense after being traded by Houston hasn't helped his sagging efficiency. Part of the problem is that Ariza has always been at his best in transition, but the Hornets never run. The only slower-paced team in the league are the Portland Trail Blazers, where Williams was an assistant coach a year ago.
Williams doesn't know what he's going to get on a nightly basis from shooting guards Marco Belinelli and Willie Green. Belinelli has been reasonably efficient by virtue of making 41.4 percent of his three-point tries, but offers little when the jumper is not falling. Green is streaky and can catch fire, but his tendency to keep shooting even when he's off hampers his efficiency. Surprisingly, Green actually has a better True Shooting Percentage than backup point guard Jarrett Jack, who inexplicably is using 23.5 percent of New Orleans' plays while on the court. Backup bigs Aaron Gray and Jason Smith are on the floor almost entirely for their size on defense.
As I think about this series, a line Kenny Smith used about Derrick Rose earlier this season stands out: Too big, too fast, too strong, too good. That's the Lakers in this series. With Paul and West running pick-and-pops against the L.A. frontline, the Hornets might have had something to exploit. As it is, only Paul's brilliance is likely to keep them from being swept.
Lakers in 5
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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