NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Two transcendent playoff performances by Chris Paul made the Hornets’ first-round series with Los Angeles far more interesting than the defending champion Lakers would have preferred.
The question now is whether the Hornets’ four-time All-Star can summon another big game back in the Big Easy on Thursday night.
At the very least, Paul welcomes the pressure that comes with a game in which a loss ends the season for his team.
“This is all or nothing for us,” Paul said. “I can’t wait.”
When Paul has been sensational – with his 33-point, 14 assist performance in Game 1 and his triple-double in Game 4 – the Hornets have pulled out a pair of hard fought victories. In the series’ other three games, when Paul has still been exceptional, but short of dominant, the Lakers have won – including twice by double digits.
Now ahead 3-2 in the series, Los Angeles needs only one more win to dispatch pesky New Orleans. If the Lakers own key statistical categories as thoroughly as they did in their 106-90 Game 5 triumph on Tuesday night, the series isn’t likely to make it back to the West Coast for Game 7.
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The Lakers restored their dominance inside, outrebounding the Hornets 42-25, which included a 15-3 advantage in offensive rebounds. That led to a whopping 22-2 advantage in second-chance points. Los Angeles also outscored the Hornets 42-30 in the paint.
“We should be able to play like that all the time,” Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. “We needed to play physical and control the boards, and use our bodies. … Our energy was good, and that’s why we won the way we won.”
The Hornets never looked more outmatched in the series, but if that result shook their confidence, they’re not letting it show.
“The great thing about it is now we get to go back to our home court with our fans behind us, and we have to bring the energy,” Paul said. “It’s the elimination game now. We can’t leave anything out there.”
Paul has said throughout his career that he never wants to come out and would gladly play 48 minutes if coaches would let him. Such an approach might have served the Hornets well in Game 5.
The Hornets led by nine when Paul went to the bench to rest in the beginning of the second quarter. The Lakers immediately went on a 10-0 run and the momentum seemed to change for good.
Hornets coach Monty Williams said Paul’s teammates could have helped him by showing more toughness on defense and fouling hard, the way Lakers star Kobe Bryant did when he thwarted a layup attempt by Emeka Okafor with a forearm across the Hornets center’s head.
“At some point, you have to know how to make a playoff foul,” Williams said. The coach then referred to the lack of resistance Bryant met on his thunderous driving dunk in the second quarter, which seemed to energize his team. “We have to learn how to not allow him to get that play off.”
Williams believes the Lakers have been allowed to get away with too much banging inside. He even made a formal protest to the NBA about it after Game 3.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson didn’t seem quite sure what to make of his team being portrayed as the one that hits hardest.
“It was pretty interesting. We’re not usually known for that,” Jackson said. “We’re known as being soft, but sometimes desperation can activate” toughness.
Jackson added that he fully expected the Hornets to respond to their coach’s call for more aggression.
“The game will be feisty, no doubt about it,” Jackson said. “The team that beats the other team to loose balls is going to win the game.”
Bryant, meanwhile, continues to receive treatment for an injury to his left ankle and foot that occurred late in the Hornets Game 4 win. Of course, the Hornets realized by the second quarter of Game 5 that they better not count on the injury slowing the Lakers’ superstar down. Although he played less than 29 minutes in Game 5, he was 8 of 13 shooting for 19 points and showed little lack of explosion on a pair of soaring one-handed jams.
Jackson said Bryant was sore on Wednesday, but added that he did not expect to limit Bryant’s playing time at all on Thursday night.
“This is a game in which we go all-out to win,” Jackson said. “If it’s 40 minutes, we will” play Bryant that long.
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