The coming first round match-up between the New Orleans Hornets and Los Angeles Lakers means very different things to the two teams involved.
For the Hornets, this is an opportunity to prove the critics wrong. After a turbulent season featuring them thriving early, experiencing key injuries, faltering late and ultimately re-emerging again in the Western Conference playoff picture, not many are giving New Orleans a shot. And while the Hornets still boast a line-up which showcases one of the league’s premier point guards in Chris Paul and valuable mid-season acquisition Carl Landry, it’s not hard to see why nobody is prepared to put much faith into their cause as they take on the two-time defending champions.
While proving their critics wrong may provide their opponents with an “us against the world” mentality heading into this, the only thing the Lakers are thinking about is health, health and health.
After a lackadaisical, half-hearted effort to show that they were not completely ambivalent towards the regular season going into the All-Star break, Los Angeles came out of that weekend on a mission. Having seemingly turned the corner, behind the ferocious play of Andrew Bynum, the team proceeded to demolish everyone in their path up until an unfortunate match-up against the Miami Heat. For a brief period of time, it even seemed like they may have had a shot at reclaiming the No. 1 seed atop the Western Conference.
It was not to be, though. A few ugly losses later, the Lakers were back in what panicky fans would consider the abyss – fighting for a shot at the No. 2 seed in the West.
Worse yet, on top of the team’s almost painful-to-watch conclusion to the 2010-11 season, they experienced another setback in the form of an injury to Bynum. Hurting his right knee in the second to last game of the year, the young and fragile Lakers big man all but stopped traffic in Los Angeles as the city anxiously awaited his MRI results.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Lakers experienced a few other B- and C-stories in their soap opera finish to the year. First there was the Kobe Bryant-gay slur controversy that captivated the nation for all of 12 hours. Then there was the news that the team’s veteran point guard, Steve Blake, had come down with chicken pox. Needless to say, considering that Bryant, Bynum and Ron Artest never had the pesky illness, that wasn’t exactly music to the ears of the organization.
All that aside, things turned out pretty well for L.A. coming into the first game of this series. Bynum’s injury is reportedly fine. Bryant apologized for the slur – repeatedly. And, of course, no red spots have shown up -- as of yet -- on Bryant, Bynum or Artest.
Most importantly, all in all, this team got the best possible playoff breakdown given the circumstances they were facing. They get to face a Hornets bunch that they match up well against, avoid the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs until the conference finals, and have the opportunity to rest Bynum and any chicken pox casualties in the coming games against their inferior opponents.
The only player that can really hurt the Lakers at this point, obviously, is Paul. At his advanced age, Derek Fisher can’t hope to stop -- or contain -- the skilled point guard, but the mentality for L.A. will no doubt be that Paul can’t beat their entire team by himself. Worth noting, though, is that this that even while having a “down year” by his standards, Paul is averaging 16 points on nearly 47 percent shooting, 9.8 assists and 2.4 steals per game. The only way Fisher stops this guy is by hitting him with a steel chair before the game tips off.
Unfortunately for the Hornets, the advantages that go in their favor end there. Bryant will eat Marco Belinelli up and spit him out. Artest well play well enough against Trevor Ariza. Pau Gasol will have to earn his points against a workhorse in Landry, but it’s hard to imagine that the former Houston Rockets role player will be able to hold Gasol to his season averages of nearly 19 points and 10 rebounds per game. And finally, while the center battle featuring Emeka Okafor and maybe Bynum is worth keeping an eye, it won’t decide the series.
From beginning to end, starters to bench to coaching, the Lakers are better than the Hornets. So, while New Orleans may be able to muster up some early first game bluster in an effort to shock the world (see: Indiana Pacers) against Los Angeles, talent will ultimately win out.
This series goes five games, max.
Full schedule below:
Game 1 - Sun April 17, New Orleans at L.A. Lakers.
Game 2 - Wed April 20, New Orleans at L.A. Lakers.
Game 3 - Fri April 22, L.A. Lakers at New Orleans.
Game 4 - Sun April 24, L.A. Lakers at New Orleans.
Game 5 * Tue April 26, New Orleans at L.A. Lakers.
Game 6 * Thu April 28, L.A. Lakers at New Orleans.
Game 7 * Sat April 30, New Orleans at L.A. Lakers.