EL SEGUNDO (AP) – After three straight trips to the NBA finals, there are few playoff predicaments the Los Angeles Lakers haven’t already escaped. Just last spring, they were in the same jam they currently face: tied at 2 in a first-round playoff series against a young, hungry opponent.
Oklahoma City had the Lakers two games away from a shocking first-round elimination last year before they pulled much the same escape they’re hoping to make against New Orleans this week.
“We’re in the same position, as far as being tied,” said Pau Gasol, the Lakers’ fourth-leading scorer in the series with 12.3 points per game while making a team-worst 39.5 percent of his shots. “We just have to make sure we come out and get Game 5 as we did in the past, because we know how important it is.”
When the two-time champions face that pivotal first-round Game 5 against New Orleans on Tuesday night at Staples Center, they’ll have to draw from their expansive well of postseason experience just to keep moving forward on the brutal drive toward a threepeat.
The Lakers still haven’t drained that well, but their task gets a bit tougher each time they have to go there to find the energy necessary to finish off contenders.
“They certainly play better when they’re in a desperate mode, there’s no doubt about that,” coach Phil Jackson said after Monday’s workout at the Lakers’ training complex. “They were somber. They understand the nature of we to have to do with this ballclub.”
Sure, the Lakers have been here before while playing 67 postseason games over the previous three years. But the dilemma posed by the Hornets is unique.
For one thing, few players in recent playoff years have carved up the Lakers’ defense as thoroughly as Chris Paul is doing it in this series. Paul, who destroyed Los Angeles with 33 points and 14 assists in Game 1, is averaging 25.5 points, 11.5 assists and 7 rebounds per game after putting up the first triple-double ever posted against the Lakers in 712 playoff games during New Orleans’ win in Game 4.
For another, Kobe Bryant is limping on a sprained left ankle that might be a bit more serious than the countless injuries he has managed through in the past few seasons. After getting ice and massage during the Lakers’ flight home, which landed about 3:30 a.m. local time Monday, he refused any further treatment, preferring to head into Game 5 without knowing the full extent of his latest injury.
“He says he’ll play,” Jackson said of Bryant, who didn’t speak to reporters Monday. “He won’t let them deal with it. … Doesn’t matter, he’s going to play tomorrow. That’s his attitude.”
Jackson also said Paul isn’t the biggest problem faced by the Lakers, who have all but conceded they can’t shut down the four-time All-Star point guard. Their game plan increasingly focuses on slowing down Paul’s teammates – a tactic that didn’t work in Game 4.
“We’re bothered by (Trevor) Ariza and (Carl) Landry,” Jackson said. “We’re paying attention to Chris Paul, and he’s make big plays. We’re not worried about that. We’re worried about something we can do something about.”
The Hornets have remained humble about their upstart run at the Lakers after stumbling into the playoffs and losing leading scorer David West to a season-ending injury. Yet two victories in four games have built a fire of confidence under New Orleans, which is drafting off the remarkable pace set by its star point guard.
Paul has accumulated his own share of injuries, including a nasty cut near his right eye, but teammate Jarrett Jack knows the Hornets can count on him.
“He’s tough as nails,” Jack said of his boyhood friend. “The only way he’s not going to play is if he can’t breathe. Nothing is going to keep him out of the game. It’s the same as Kobe. You saw him. He could barely walk, and he was yelling at Phil (Jackson) for taking him out the game. If you want to be that guy in this league, that’s what you have to do.”
Paul lavished postgame praise on Ariza, the former Lakers forward who scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half of Game 4 while holding Bryant scoreless on defense.
“He was unbelievable,” Paul said of Ariza, who won the 2009 title with Los Angeles. “I told him after the game I fed off of his energy. I might have had four points in the first half, but he single-handedly kept us in the game. It’s hard enough to run around with Kobe. For him to be out there to score, he was doing it all.”
The Lakers are familiar with best-of-three finishes to their playoff series: Three of their four postseason series last year were tied after four games, as were two series during their initial title run in 2009.
The Lakers prevailed every time – but that doesn’t mean it gets any easier to do it, point guard Derek Fisher notes.
“If you could just play the way you want to every time you go out there, there would be more teams that have done what we’re trying to do,” Fisher said.
Updated April 25, 2011