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Hornets find footing in West race with Lakers

LOS ANGELES – Byron Scott saw the way the Los Angeles Lakers looked at his young team. Rivals? Hardly. The New Orleans Hornets were the 7-year-old kid brother, full of potential and energy, but still someone who needed to be put to bed early. During each of their two visits to New Orleans, the Lakers had jumped on the Hornets, then done just enough to dismissively fend them off.

“For our psyche, we’ve got to play one of those games where we know we can beat them,” Scott said early Tuesday evening. “I don't think right now they think we can, even though I know in my heart I think we can.”

Scott always believes, and that’s one reason why the Hornets’ psyche is just fine. Another reason: Chris Paul and David West don’t scare easy, either. If the Lakers didn’t know that before, they do now.

Paul totaled 32 points and 15 assists without a single turnover and West matched his career high with 40 points while taking 11 rebounds as the Hornets interrupted the Lakers’ parade to the NBA Finals for one night, running over them in the fourth quarter of a 116-105 victory. Turns out, there might be a reason to hold the Western Conference finals after all.

The Lakers had spent much of the season brushing aside one challenger after another, unable to find someone willing to give them a worthy fight. That included the Hornets, who quickly found themselves buried under the Lakers’ talent and depth in their two previous meetings. Prior to Tuesday, the Lakers had just one conference loss: a letdown performance against the woeful Sacramento Kings. Including last season’s playoffs, they had won 25 consecutive home games against Western opponents.

But as the Lakers rushed to the top of the NBA standings to await their coronation, the Hornets had an easy way to deal with the breathless reviews Kobe Bryant and his teammates were receiving.

“We ignored it,” Paul said.

For all the concerns about their inability to recapture last season’s magic – some of which was justified given their 10-8 record against winning teams – the Hornets now stand 21-10, a one-game improvement from where they stood a year ago. This much certainly hasn’t changed: Paul and West continue to play with a fearlessness that carries these Hornets. Sometimes, their competitive fire burns too hot, and they’ll carp too long about an official’s whistle or an opponent’s elbow. But, always, they play hard.

The addition of James Posey, whose toughness and edge helped push the Boston Celtics to last season’s championship, has further sharpened the Hornets. There’s a reason why Posey played every second of the fourth quarter while Peja Stojakovic cooled his heels on the bench.

“A couple years ago, we would go through two quarters where it would seem like we weren’t getting anything done,” said backup guard Devin Brown, who rejoined the Hornets this season after a year with the Cleveland Cavaliers. “Now, I just think the attitude is a lot different. There’s a lot more at stake. Back then, I think it was just try to get into the playoffs. Now we’re trying to get a title.”

Bryant gave the Hornets ample reason to fold on Tuesday, sticking one deep 3-pointer after another in a 20-point third-quarter barrage that had Paul still shaking his head 30 minutes after the game.

“It was crazy,” he said. “It was cray-zee. I was like a fan in the third quarter.”

Paul shrugged. What could the Hornets do? They waited out the attack, with West keeping them as close as possible. When Bryant went to the bench a little less than four minutes into the fourth quarter with the Lakers up five, the Hornets hit back harder, scoring 15 consecutive points. The Lakers never answered.

With the Hornets using two defenders to force him to give up the ball, Bryant scored only two of his 39 points in the fourth quarter. The Hornets packed their defense into the lane, limiting Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum to a combined 17 points, less than half what West totaled himself.

“He just killed them,” Bryant said of West. The Lakers had used Lamar Odom to help guard West in the first half, but lost the help of their versatile forward late in the second quarter when he limped off with a bruised right knee. Still, Bryant conceded, “I don’t know how much of a difference he would have made. David was just on fire.”

Odom's injury isn't serious. The Lakers say he'll be day to day. But with Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton already propped up on Los Angeles’ training table, the Lakers could find themselves tested depending on how much time Odom misses.

“That time of the season,” Bryant said. “The injury bug is biting us. Hopefully, it won’t last long.”

The Hornets can’t come close to matching the Lakers’ depth, and that could ultimately prove fatal in a seven-game series. Scott used only seven players in the second half, and one of them, Hilton Armstrong, was on the floor for less than four minutes. Prior to the game, the Hornets coach joked that he might have to suit up himself if he can’t get more production from his shooting guards.

Of even greater concern to the Hornets has been the dip in the numbers of starting center Tyson Chandler. He’s averaging nearly four fewer rebounds per game than he did last season. West’s rebounding also has dropped off.

“I told Tyson and David West we’re only going to go as far as you two guys can take us,” Scott said. “From a physical standpoint, that’s where it’s going to be won, in the trenches.”

Still, no matter how thin his bench, no matter how worried he might be over Chandler’s play, Scott exudes a confidence with his team that is borne from his own days as a player with the Lakers. When asked how the swagger of the current Lakers compared to those of his Showtime era, Scott laughed.

“Not even close,” he said.

“My wife used to always tell me she would stand right by the tunnel and watch us come out. I had never seen her. She said she could look at us and she could see we were focused. It’s just like the [Oakland] Raiders back in the day, when they used to get off the bus with all black on. They just tried to intimidate people. We just wanted to let you know we were coming and we meant business all night long.”

On Tuesday, Paul did just that, bulling his way into the lane time and again, scoring 15 points in the opening quarter alone. Scott wanted the Hornets to send a message, and they did. He saw how the Lakers looked at his young team.

For one night, at least, they were staring up.