Lakers 87, Hornets 78: The Empire Strikes Back

He actually missed this, I think.

This was the kind of game NBA writers like to call "playoff basketball." While that's a term often used as a substitute for real analysis, it's one that should, at least in passing, be mentioned after tonight's game. Fouls - hard, technical, flagrant, clear path - engendered more fouls, with the recipients of those said shoves and elbows only too willing to enthusiastically reciprocate. 

In most areas, the Hornets gave as good as they got. New Orleans held Los Angeles field goal-less over long periods of play. Offensively, they used the Lakers' aggressiveness against them at points, with Chris Paul, most notably, drawing two shooting fouls on Kobe Bryant from deep three point range. This was exactly the type of game New Orleans has made a habit of playing all season long - a slow (86 possession) game stuffed with defensive stop (90.7 efficiency for NOLA) after defensive stop (101.2 for LA). By game's end, New Orleans had taken 10 more free throws than Los Angeles, even if making them was another story entirely. The intensity of Chris Paul's team certainly matched that of Kobe Bryant's.

But then we come to the scoreboard. The Hornets made sure the Lakers weren't fully comfortable until Ron Artest's three with a minute to go, but at the same time, they never made any serious runs either. At first glance, L.A.'s size seems a likely primary culprit. Andrew Bynum undoubtedly had an extremely good night; for me, he was the player of the game along with Chris Paul. Okafor couldn't defend him, Gray couldn't defend him, and Monty Williams will have his hands full in terms of Game 3 prep. Another Hornet killer was Lamar Odom, who lay waste to the New Orleans bench as might a hungry Wampa. Odom's contributions were supported by those of Matt Barnes (8 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 4 for 4) and Steve Blake (head band styling).

Yet neither of those things decided the game - the Laker defense did. Phil Jackson opted to bring a defender onto Chris Paul extremely early in Hornet sets, and (much more) importantly, the double came immediately. Every time. Some will focus on the red herring that was Kobe Bryant making a big show of getting into a low defensive stance against Paul every once in a while. But tremendous credit needs to go to the Laker bigs for coming over to Paul quickly and creating strong traps that Paul was unable to split.

Phil Jackson played his cards exactly right. By bringing double teams so far on the perimeter, he ensured that Paul could not possibly make a play by locating players nearer to the basket. Paul's passes out of L.A. traps came more out of desperation than creativity; Jackson's strategy put the onus on the player that caught Paul's passes to make plays. Frequently, the player catching the pass was a big - Gray, Landry, or Okafor. The guards that caught passes out of traps all played horrible games, with the exception of Trevor Ariza. Marco Belinelli was awful to the point of being yanked immediately in the third quarter, only for Willie Green to play even worse. I noted on WWL in the afternoon that the Lakers were going to make Chris Paul's teammates beat them in Game 2. That's exactly what they did.

* Strategy sidebar:

 How do the Hornets beat the early trap? Two primary ways - let's start with the more unfeasible one. The first option is to let Paul beat the trap himself. This would involve endless motion on Paul's part, coupled with flawless dribbling. Over a full game, it's totally untenable, but over shorter stretches, especially with Paul anticipating traps in certain areas of the floor, it could work. The second option is not only more feasible, but basically required if the Hornets are going to hit back on Friday. The second option is to have plays set up on the assumption that a hard trap will come on each play. Essentially, Hornet plays would start after the trap; it would require a playmaker (preferably Jack or Ariza) to be in position to catch Paul's pass out of traps. From that point forward, the Hornets would be playing 4 on 3 (Paul and two defenders behind the play).

To use a football analogy- when a defense blitzes, the offense needs to run players on quick routes into the vacated zones of the blitzers. Sticking to regular routes with no safety valves is futile because, in the face of oncoming blitzers, they take way too long to develop. Importantly, the safety valve needs to be a player that can be trusted; say, a big tight end with good hands. The Laker double team is obviously the blitzers in this analogy, Paul the quarterback, and the "regular routes" the Hornets' normal offense. Putting guys in passable distances from the Paul traps are the safety valves, and just as it's important to get a good target man in those routes, it's crucial that Paul is not dumping the ball to Aaron Gray or Carl Landry, but instead to Jack or Ariza.

(And yes, it goes without saying that any roster that not only encourages, but actually requires the existence of Trevor Ariza the Playmaker is one that is terribly, terribly flawed). 

*

After the jump, some player notes.

- Trevor Ariza was really great in Game 2. He forced the issue and drove hard to the rim; most impressive was the ease with which he beat his first defender. As Los Angeles continues to double Paul in Game 3, Ariza will remain a vital player. He also played a great defensive game (for the record, I thought he was solid in Game 1 as well. Kobe was just Kobe).

- It's been a nightmare of a series for Emeka Okafor, and it will likely continue to be exactly that. Oak logged just 24 minutes again, and while Monty Williams may have disagreed with some of the foul calls, Bynum is a really tough matchup for him regardless. 

- I'll group Willie Green and Marco Belinelli together in one point. Both were beyond terrible with the ball in their hands, making poor decisions in terms of reading passing lanes, dribbling into corners and stopping, and missing open shots. Of course, give Los Angeles defenders lots of credit for their work on them, but both players are better than they showed tonight. They need to prove it on Friday.

- Carl Landry also shot poorly from the floor (missed 8 of 12 shots), but I find it a bit tougher to fault him for his performance. He was at the center of basically every physical confrontation, and more importantly, his defense on Pau Gasol was phenomenal. The way he anticipated Gasol's moves showed how much he's clearly studied Gasol's game extensively ahead of and during this series (either through video or with the Hornet coaches).

- Aaron Gray and Jarrett Jack both struggled to replicate their Game 1 performances. In the case of Jack, he made some poor decisions with the ball, especially coming off pick and rolls as the ball handler. Gray was easily the Hornets' best defensive rebounder of the night, but he was exploited defensively, reduced to doing nothing more than giving away fouls and free throws at times. He gave Bynum a tougher time on Bynum's back-to-basket moves than Okafor did, but Bynum was able to face up and shoot over Gray with ridiculous ease. 

- 16 turnovers on 86 possessions. 12 missed free throws on 32 trips. The players would be the first to tell you that's unacceptable. 

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