"Whatever it takes."
That's now the new motto for the Lakers (19-25) heading to tonight's matchup with the visiting New Orleans Hornets (15-29). The purple and gold is on a 2-game winning streak fueled by their newfound passion and attitude thanks to the ever-evolving leadership of Kobe Bryant.
Kobe has taken another new role of becoming the team's facilitator and initiator on offense. And with Mike D'Antoni's willingness to further adjust his system around the talent he has on this team, the Lakers have gone back to a slow-tempo, halfcourt team. The overall effect of that transition could not have been established and justified more than the biggest win of the season over the reigning Western Conference champions Thunder on Sunday.
In that game, the Lakers took care of Russell Westbrook (17 points/27% shooting) and made Kevin Durant (35 points/38% shooting) work hard for nearly every shot he took defensively. On offense, the Lakers shared and moved the ball so much that the Thunder simply could not focus in on a single Laker on defense. The Lakers are hoping that by coming together on Kobe's lead, the rest of the league will have the same problems that OKC experienced.
Tonight's opponent may not be anywhere near the level of the Thunder, but the result the Lakers are looking for is the same. If the Lakers revert back to the same lackluster effort and focus they've shown for much of the season, then all the hard work they put on as a team in these 2 wins would all be for nothing.
The Lakers are still 6 games below .500, and more importantly, still chasing the 8th seed Rockets, who are 4 1/2 games in front of them. So every loss they take from here on out brings heavy consequences in terms of their playoff hopes.
The Hornets, who will eventually change their name to the Pelicans next season, have improved winning 8 of their 14 games in January before going 7-21 at the start of the season. That has a lot to do with getting everybody back healthy.
Veteran guard Eric Gordon is playing again after his latest knee injury, and rookie big Anthony Davis returned early last month after going down with an ankle injury in November. Gordon leads the Hornets in steals averaging 1.4 per game and is second in scoring getting 16.8 points per. Davis is obviously their best shot-blocker averaging 1.8 blocks per game (10th in the league) and in rebounds grabbing 7.8 boards an outing.
The Lakers won their last meeting with the Hornets, 103-87. Kobe got his 30,000th career points in that game, but they allowed too many points from certain Hornet players that shouldn't have scored as much as they did.
Ryan Anderson torched the Lakers, particularly from distance, with his game-leading 31 points on 12-of-21 shooting in that game. Anderson was one of the league's top 3-point shooter at that time, but he got so many open and uncontested looks at the rim from that spot. For some reason, the Laker defense just could not keep track of him all night long. And to make it worse, they allowed Robin Lopez, a guy not known for his offense, get 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting. That can't happen tonight, especially when you consider that the Hornets have 2 of their best players back on the floor.
This is the 2nd to last game against the "Hornets" ever. These teams won't look at each other again until March 6 back in New Orleans. The Lakers won all 3 meetings last season and have not lost to the Hornets since March 29, 2010. The Hornets are 8-14 on the road but have won 3 of their last 5 away from home. The Lakers are now 14-10 at Staples Center and have lost just once in their last 5 games at home.
NOTE: Steve Blake is set to return tonight after missing the last 37 games due to a lower abdominal strain that had to be surgically repaired.
Matchup of the Game
Hornets Bench vs. Lakers Bench: Believe it or not, the bench for New Orleans is the 2nd best in the league. They average 40.8 points per game compared to just 26.5 for the Lakers 2nd unit. Anderson (17.1 PPG) and Jason Smith (8.1 PPG) lead their bench in scoring, but their 2nd unit contribute on offense by committee. The Lakers can't afford to let the role players for New Orleans play like All-Stars or that would put too much pressure on both their offense and defense.
Keys to the Game
> Continuation: As I alluded to earlier, the improvement the Lakers made these past 2 games would all be for nothing if they don't continue that same effort and commitment on both sides of the court. Their mental approach tonight and the rest of the season has to be consistently at a high level if they want to be on board of the bus headed for the post-season when it departs.
> Turnovers: Despite the wins, the Lakers are still turning the ball over way too much for a team trying to catch up in the west. The Lakers are currently averaging 15.4 turnovers per game (25th). They have to cut that down to at least around 13 per night if they want to drastically improve their overall game.
> Dominate: The Lakers may have turned a page as far as their progress as a team, but they haven't really dominated an entire game much this season. If the Lakers are to shoot for the playoffs the rest of the way, they have to start acting like a playoff contender. Part of that is to dominate teams they're supposed to because it starts to plant a seed in their collective mindset that they have to come out with a strong purpose each quarter of each game. That's the only way to erase any doubt in what to expect from them as a team night-in and nigh-out.
Watch Out For
HORNETS: Anthony Davis: He may not be performing at an All-Star level, but this guy always has a game-changer element to his game. He can score efficiently, rebound and has the tangibles to be a dominant defender. He's going up against the Lakers and Dwight Howard tonight, so it's not entirely out of the question (especially this season) when a player like Davis goes out and have his best game of the year.
LAKERS: Dwight Howard: He dominated the paint for the Lakers in the last game versus the Hornets getting 18 points, 8 boards and 5 blocks. But that was then, this is now. Howard has been in a much better mood now that he feels more like an important part of the team and seeing the Lakers having a clearer path to having an identity on both sides of the floor. Expect the Lakers to look for him a lot more tonight.
Tonight vs. New Orleans Hornets
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. (PST)
TV: TWC SportsNet (Southern California)
Radio: 710 AM ESPN/1330 KWKW
LAKERS: Jordan Hill (hip) is out for remainder of the season.