The Lakers swept the teams’ four-game regular-season series with height and bulk, mercilessly outmuscling New Orleans in the paint. Seven-footers Pau Gasol(notes) and Andrew Bynum(notes) were far too much for the slimmer, sleeker Hornets to handle, even when New Orleans star David West(notes) was healthy.
Gasol and Bynum realize they’ve got to be big bullies when the series opens Sunday at Staples Center, or what’s expected to be another long postseason run for the Lakers will be in early trouble.
“Our effort and focus is always to get it down low,” Gasol said. “We start off everything from there. We try to do it on a consistent basis, even if it’s not always there. Especially against New Orleans, we have to concentrate on our strengths. If we do that and we’re successful, it will be a huge help down the road.”
With his back to the basket, Bynum did an imitation of the overgrown kid in a sixth-grade P.E. class, patiently backing down Okafor at least 8 feet— starting outside the paint, until both players were under the basket—before reaching up and calmly dunking.
“They’re some big boys,” agreed Okafor, who finally made the postseason after seven years in the league.
“It’s like a fresh start,” Okafor added. “You can think of those four (regular-season) games as warmups, because they don’t really matter now. You have to play. Everybody’s 0-0. Man up and match up.”
The seventh-seeded Hornets realize this series appears to be a mismatch, yet they’ve thrived on exceeding expectations all season. Even after the franchise that’s owned by the NBA lost West to a left knee injury last month, New Orleans still made the playoffs—only to run into the second-seeded Lakers, most experts’ picks to come out of the West for the fourth straight season.
“We may be the one that’s probably outmatched more than any other series, but that’s OK,” New Orleans coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve been outmatched all year long.”
No NBA team has been swept in a regular-season series longer than two games and then beaten that team in the postseason since 1998, when the then-Charlotte Hornets did it to Atlanta.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson is cautiously confident his club has its collective head together after a stumbling finish to the regular season. Los Angeles lost five straight before back-to-back wins last week, barely keeping the No. 2 seed ahead of Dallas.
The Lakers lately haven’t resembled the club that went 17-1 after the All-Star break. Luckily for Jackson, it’s finally time for the postseason—the one thing in the world that can probably sustain his decorated club’s attention.
“We’ve had a very up-and-down finish, there’s no doubt,” Jackson said. “The last 25 games don’t make sense in a lot of ways. A great winning sequence of games, then losing five in a row. It’s about the wear and tear of a season, obviously, just losing focus at some time.”
Kobe Bryant(notes) has been uneasy with the Lakers’ lapses in concentration, but he sounded confident Saturday in a renewed focus. The Lakers insist they aren’t taking New Orleans for granted, studying film of their four victories and vowing to minimize the effectiveness of star point guard Chris Paul(notes) and the Hornets’ younger legs.
Bynum expects to be fully healthy after he missed the final two regular-season games with a bone bruise in his troublesome right knee. Forward Matt Barnes(notes) also said he’ll play after getting his surgically repaired right knee drained, but backup point guard Steve Blake(notes) is likely to be out for a bit longer with chicken pox.
While the Lakers have been to three straight NBA finals with largely the same core that will take the court Sunday, Hornets starters Okafor and Marco Belinelli(notes) and key reserve Jarrett Jack(notes) will all make their playoff debuts.
“I didn’t imagine it would take this long,” said Okafor, the former NCAA champion at UConn. “Being at Connecticut, the tournament was almost like a foregone conclusion. … Then turn around and be drafted by an expansion team and almost be expected not to make the playoffs, and to finally get here, I want to make it last as long as possible.”
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.