Lakers’ struggles against Hornets are troubling

From New Orleans

The Lakers insist they want to be champions again, but playing like it has never seemingly been a priority this season.

So what happens if the Lakers have to play a good team?

You know — if they’re still around and eligible to play in another series or two?

A year ago the Lakers were nudged along like this in the first round, surprised and stretched by Oklahoma City.

Lakers-Hornets Game 4 box score

But this has a different feel. Oklahoma City was loaded with talent, a team on the rise that might actually arrive in a big way this postseason.


The Hornets are none of that. They start four players. Hard to make a case Marco Belinelli is a basketball player on either end of the court, and yet Sunday night the Lakers were being asked to dig deep against him and his pals.

“It’s a series now,” said Lakers Coach Phil Jackson at a time when the Hornets should be picking up their parting gifts and reporting Monday for exit interviews.

Remember the predictions from most basketball experts that this was going to be a sweep?

The Lakers tower over the Hornets, they have Kobe Bryant who used to be the best player in the game, and yet beyond belief, this series is tied at two games each with New Orleans a 93-88 winner in Game 4.

“We played just as hard as they did,” insisted Lamar Odom, and how scary is that? “Sometimes you just get beat.”

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If the Lakers are playing as hard as they can, the question bears repeating: What happens if they have to play a really good team?

If the Lakers can’t stop Trevor Ariza, a beaten-up Chris Paul and a cast of nobodies, how do they stop Miami’s Big Three, Boston’s Fearsome Foursome, or Oklahoma City’s Energetic Five?

“We’ve been talking about being strong and courageous since the playoffs started,” said New Orleans Coach Monty Williams, and I guess the Lakers haven’t had that conversation in their locker room.

“We talked about fighting and just taking it,” Williams said, the Lakers more than happy to just give it to them.

Now it’s at least a six-game series, the Hornets guaranteed to play another game at home and so much for ending things quickly as Jackson had mentioned before the game.

Jackson reeled off a list of injuries that has sidetracked the Lakers in previous playoff seasons because they failed to close out an opponent when given the chance.

As if Jackson needed any reminder of how quickly things can turn with a freak injury, Bryant turned an ankle in the final minutes.

Bryant insisted on playing, although later he would need crutches to walk to the team bus.

He convinced Jackson he could play after sitting for a moment, and came in to make a pass to Pau Gasol who could not handle it. After all, the game was on the line and Gasol probably never expected it.

Then Bryant launched a long-range three off his good leg that failed to ring true, the game lost to the Hornets.

It was another overall confounding performance for Bryant when healthy, passing more than shooting early on, going 0 for 3 in the first quarter and 0 for 4 in the second quarter.

“Going into the game and being aggressive was something we talked about,” said Ariza, who seemed to get into Bryant’s head, and usually it’s the other way around. “When I’m aggressive early, our team starts to go.”

Bryant finished the game five for 18 for 17 points, and Jackson said later, “He didn’t score in the first half, and didn’t shoot well for the game.”

And as Lakers fans know, when Bryant gets frustrated, the game is going to take an emotional turn. But instead of taking on Ariza who had his way with him, he went after the smallest guy on the court in Paul.

In the closing minutes of the first half, Bryant began jawing at Paul. As Paul tended to business at the free-throw line, Bryant tried to talk to him. But Ariza stepped between Bryant, going wherever Bryant walked, and as Williams said later, “Ariza had set the tone from the beginning.”

He was twice the player that Kobe was in the first half, scoring on Bryant and shutting Bryant down, keeping the Lakers from throwing the knockout punch. A loss would have had the Hornets meeting in their locker room later and taking a vote whether they would go on to Los Angeles.

But the final rambunctious emotional minutes of the first half, which included an angry Bryant going one on five unsuccessfully, not only got the crowd back into the game, but gave the Hornets a four-point lead and momentum to pull off another upset.

How embarrassing. If the Lakers play like the team everyone in the league fears, New Orleans players are making tee times.

“Defense,” or the lack of it, said Andrew Bynum in trying to explain this latest Lakers’ pratfall.

A bigger problem, though, appears to be the Lakers themselves, never really concerned until they have to be.

As soon as they lost the home-court advantage they put the Hornets in their place, but then once again lost interest.

They are still the team in control, the one with the best players and coach, and will probably dispatch the Hornets in the next two games as they did the Thunder.

But if this is as good as they intend to be this season, uh-oh.