Reporting from New Orleans
The first round finally ended for the Lakers, perhaps a game or two too late, but whatever.
No more getting outrebounded by the sawed-off front-line of the New Orleans Hornets. No more triple-doubles for Chris Paul. No more April anxiety for Lakers fans who witnessed too many downs this season to recognize the ups.
The Lakers moved on to the Western Conference semifinals after short-circuiting the Hornets, 98-80, and winning the best-of-seven series, 4-2, Thursday at New Orleans Arena.
The Lakers begin the next round Monday at home against Dallas, an inviting matchup for the Lakers, who have won 10 of their last 13 games against the Mavericks and went 2-1 against them this season.
It's also good for history. Surprisingly, the Lakers and Mavericks haven't seen each other in the playoffs since the 1988 West finals, won by the Lakers in seven games.
For now, the Lakers are happily past the Hornets. Or, as the white board in the Lakers' locker room said after the game: 12 mo'
A dozen victories separate the Lakers from a third consecutive championship. To get there, they'll have to show the same blend on both sides of the ball they had Thursday.
Kobe Bryant again ignored a sprained left ankle and had 24 points in 30 minutes, making six of 16 shots and all 10 of his free-throw attempts.
He embraced a long weekend of rest "so when the next series comes around, I'll be close to 100%," he said.
It's getting repetitive, but Andrew Bynum was dominant down low with 18 points and 12 rebounds, eight in the offensive end.
Even when he was bad he was good, twice missing layup attempts, taking the rebound and scoring.
"He's three times bigger than anybody else on the court," declared New Orleans guard Chris Paul.
"Our bigs played the way we wanted to see them play," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.
There was also the defense.
In the third quarter, as the Lakers extended from a 40-34 halftime lead, Gasol blocked Marco Belinelli's jumper as the shot clock expired. Bynum then blocked Carl Landry's shot, the Hornets forward lunging at the rebound and awkwardly throwing the ball out of bounds.
Ron Artest stole a pass under the Lakers' basket, getting away with a small shove, and scored on a layup. It wasn't a kiss-the-biceps moment. He chose to flex both arms instead.
Just as the Hornets thought they crawled back into the game, and their fans began to make some noise, Artest found Bryant open on the other side for a three-pointer. Bryant held a finger to lips. The Lakers were again up by 10.
Paul torched the Lakers throughout the series but had only 10 points and 11 assists with five turnovers in Game 6.
"He was tired," Bryant said. "He was all over the place this series. That little sucker is tough."
Paul had two points, two turnovers, two fouls and four assists in the first half.
Jackson knew the importance of this game, the need for several days of rest instead of returning home to play Game 7 on Saturday.
He yelled angrily to Odom and Gasol as they approached the bench for a timeout in the third quarter. Hey, the Hornets had actually scored on consecutive possessions!
Eventually it was on to Dallas, which tied the Lakers in the regular-season standings (57-25) but lost the home-court tiebreaker because the Mavericks were not division champions.
"They are big," Jackson said. "[Dirk] Nowitzki's a seven-footer and so is Tyson Chandler. So they have size. But these [Lakers] guys have proven their dominance by their size. This is why they're champions."
As the final seconds ticked down Thursday, Bryant walked up to Jackson and shook his hand. He also shook the hands of the other assistant coaches.
The Lakers pressed onward. Their two hiccups didn't cost them this round.