NEW ORLEANS (AP) – If Pau Gasol can’t get comfortable in a city once ruled by his native Spain, the Los Angeles Lakers could be in for a long series.
The Hornets already are showing signs of making the first round of the playoffs more than a mere formality for the two-time defending champs, having seized home advantage with a 1-1 split of the series’ first two games in Los Angeles.
Four-time All-Star Chris Paul and his upstart squad will be back home for Friday night’s Game 3, which perhaps not-so-coincidentally sold out soon after Paul led the Hornets to an upset victory in the opening game of the best-of-seven series.
Even in losing on Wednesday night, the Hornets showed they were not about to let the Lakers wipe the floor with them. New Orleans remained competitive until the final minutes of Game 2 and lost by nine despite missing 12 free throws, turning the ball over 16 times and having starting center Emeka Okafor in early foul trouble.
If anything, that result left the Hornets’ surprising nine-point triumph in Game 1 look like less of a fluke and made it clear that the Lakers had lost any intimidation factor they may have earned with their four-game sweep of the teams’ regular season meetings.
“We feel as though we kind of beat ourselves,” Hornets guard Jarrett Jack said of Game 2. “Take no credit away from them, but we definitely had some mistakes.”
Then again, things might have been different if Gasol hadn’t struggled in both games. He scored eight points in each – about 11 below his regular season average – on a combined 4 of 19 shooting.
For now, Gasol at least sounds as if his confidence is unshaken and he knows the formula for snapping out of his postseason shooting slump.
“You’ve got to stay aggressive out there, no matter what’s going on, no matter whether things are going your way or not,” Gasol said. “You’ve got to continue to play and continue to make plays whichever way you can.”
Even Kobe Bryant, who hasn’t been shy about urging Gasol to overcome his nice-guy nature on the court, was more complimentary of the struggling forward’s Game 2 performance.
“He didn’t have a good shooting night, but he was aggressive and he attacked,” Bryant said. “That’s what we need from him. He sets the tone for everybody else in terms of him being aggressive. It’s a certain energy that he carries with him.”
The Lakers survived Gasol’s 2 of 10 shooting on Wednesday in part because they simply have the depth one expects from a title contender. Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest picked up the slack on offense. Meanwhile, the whole team played better defense after Phil Jackson decided to have Bryant replace Derek Fisher as Paul’s primary defender.
Rather than filling his normal role of piling up points, Bryant focused on defense and it seemed to catch on among his teammates. Jackson was clearly pleased and could very well employ the same strategy again on Friday night.
“That was the defense that we played late in the season when we had our little run,” Jackson said, referring to an 18-game stretch in which the Lakers won 17 times.
Paul went from being dominant (33 points, 14 assists in Game 1) to exceptional (20 points, nine assists in Game 2) and the Hornets offensive flow as a whole seemed more disrupted as their shooting percentage plummeted from 52 percent to 39 percent.
“I wish we could have gotten 2-0, but I feel good because we competed,” Paul said. “But in order to win this series, it’s going to take more. It’s going to take more from me, it’s going to take more from everybody.”
Hornets rookie coach Monty Williams wasn’t ready to congratulate his team on leaving Los Angeles with one win. Rather, he wondered whether he should be concerned that his team let an opportunity to take a 2-0 lead slip away.
“It’s different because we’re playing against a team that has so much experience in these situations, and we don’t and I don’t,” Williams said. “So, we have to play a certain way. We can’t say ‘Oh, we split in LA, now let’s go home.’ We have to have the mentality that we have to win every game that we can.”
In other words, Williams remembers how the Lakers ripped the 2009-10 NBA title from Boston’s grasp after falling behind 3-2 in the finals – and overcame a double-digit deficit in the second half of Game 7 to do it.
Compared to the task they faced against the Celtics last June, the Lakers challenge in the Big Easy doesn’t look all that hard. At least, not yet.