Reporting from New Orleans
When the two-time defending champions play an outclassed seventh-seeded team in the Western Conference playoffs, hiccups and bugs shouldn't be part of the project this early.
So the Lakers turned to their old familiar names to take a 100-86 victory in Game 3 of the first round Friday at New Orleans Arena.
If only the Lakers had won that first game. They'd be looking at a possible sweep and plenty of rest before the next round.
But these are the Lakers, for whom sensibility has often been absent this season, right next to consistency.
Game 4 is Sunday in New Orleans, where the Lakers have won five of their last six games. It'd easy to predict who will win, assuming Bryant and Gasol continue to play like this.
Bryant came back from a bizarrely quiet Game 2 to make 10 of 20 shots, including four of seven from three-point range.
Gasol did him one better, coming back from two non-appearances to make seven of 13 shots and remind everybody he's a four-time All-Star.
The Lakers led by only five early in the fourth quarter but Gasol scored seven quick points, including a rare three-pointer. Hornets fans began trickling to the exits with four minutes left, the Lakers up 15.
The Lakers were elated. Overjoyed. Or not.
"It's just one game," Coach Phil Jackson said dully. "We're not going to make a mountain out of this. We want to maintain our composure."
After all, Jackson is 54-1 as a coach whenever holding a series lead.
The game didn't go without another Andrew Bynum knee scare, this time when he appeared to land on Carl Landry's foot while moving down the lane on offense in the third quarter. He stayed down for about a minute, took a visit from fast-arriving teammates and trainer Gary Vitti, then got up and jogged it off.
"Made us all a little bit nervous," Jackson said.
Said Bynum: "I don't know what happened. All I know is I just fell over."
Bynum missed the regular-season finale because of a bone bruise in his right knee, the same one that required surgery for torn cartilage last July. He was the Lakers' rock in the first half Friday, scoring all 14 of his points and taking nine of his 11 rebounds.
Bryant also seemed determined from the start, his first quarter all that had to be witnessed.
He smacked Landry's shot out of bounds with his left hand, then dunked a few possessions later at the other end. He also had two three-point plays as the Lakers took a 30-23 lead.
In Game 2, Bryant barely kept alive his playoff streak of double-digit scoring. In Game 3, he had 10 points in the first quarter.
"He wasn't content to just distribute the ball and play defense," said Jackson, who said Bryant could still play better, cognizant of his four turnovers.
Bryant also helped manage Chris Paul, who had a tolerable 22 points and eight assists that were almost canceled out by five turnovers.
"I blame myself," said Paul, unhappy he took only 13 shots. "I will look at the film tonight when I get home and see when I could have been a little more aggressive, and I have to find ways to get more attempts."
Afterward, there was also something palpable in the air in front of Gasol's locker. Happiness? Relief? Lamar Odom's new unisex cologne?
"Much better game on my part," Gasol said. "I've just got to keep it consistent."
So do the Lakers.