LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant(notes) stared at his questioner and nodded. Concerned? Yes, he’s concerned. He’d just watched Chris Paul(notes) dance through his Los Angeles Lakers for 33 points, sending the two-time defending champions to the most unlikely of losses in these playoffs. Nothing the Lakers did during the afternoon suggested they had shaken off the malaise that smothered them the last few weeks of the regular season.
That switch everyone thought the champs would flip as soon as the postseason started turned out to be only a dimmer. The Lakers couldn’t match the wattage of these wounded New Orleans Hornets. They couldn’t slow Paul, nor could they contain Aaron Gray(notes), a 7-foot backup center whose Wikipedia entry begins with this nugget, for clarity’s sake: “… Not to be confused with the actress, Erin Gray.”
“I thought Gray outplayed our big guys,” Phil Jackson would later say, and no one asked if he meant Aaron or Erin.
So, yes, Kobe’s concerned. He took his seat on the dais Sunday afternoon looking more resigned than rabid. He didn’t snarl at reporters or curse for the cameras. He spoke in a measured, matter-of-fact tone. His ferocity had been left on the court or in the locker room, safe enough away, at least, to spare himself the risk of another $100,000 fine.
And yet when someone wanted to know if the Lakers would have benefitted from better distribution of their shots – or, say, fewer from Kobe – Bryant made this point unmistakably clear:
“If the effort isn’t there,” he said, “I’m not going to sit around and wait, especially in the playoffs.”
What he meant: I’m not waiting on Pau.
Nor should he. More than anyone, this loss falls on the shoulders of Pau Gasol(notes). With the Hornets having lost forward David West(notes), their second-best player, to a season-ending knee injury, the Lakers walked into this series with a huge size advantage. Emeka Okafor(notes) didn’t stay on the floor long enough to make an impact because of foul trouble, further limiting New Orleans’ interior presence to 6-foot-9 forward Carl Landry(notes), Gray and Jason Smith(notes), a jump-shooting 7-footer. The Lakers’ three-man rotation at the two big positions – Gasol, Lamar Odom(notes) and Andrew Bynum(notes) – spans nearly 21 feet and $40 million.
And through a combination of Paul’s penetrating drives and L.A.’s defensive indifference, the Hornets outscored the Lakers 52-34 in the paint. Gasol took just nine shots to Bryant’s 26, making only two. He didn’t fight for position under the basket. He didn’t demand the ball. He didn't grab a single offensive rebound. He floated.
Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins(notes) called Gasol soft a month ago, and there was no refuting that on Sunday in the Lakers’ 109-100 loss. Gasol played the part and looked it too, leaving the arena with a bandage under his left eye that covered a gash DJ Mbenga(notes) had opened.
“It’s up to me to get myself going, be more aggressive, get myself into rhythm,” Gasol said.
Someone asked if Odom also needed to hike his scoring, and Bryant made clear that wasn’t the problem. “Pau is our guy,” he said. “He’s next in line and gets the responsibility that comes with it.”
Bryant and Gasol have long had this tug-of-war, with Bryant doing almost all of the pulling. It hasn’t played out with the name calling and control issues like the battles Kobe waged with Shaquille O’Neal(notes), but Gasol will drop hints, not always subtle, that he isn’t getting the ball enough. A lot of times, he’s right. Kobe’s shot the Lakers out of enough games – one Western Conference scout said L.A.’s recent five-game losing streak was the worst he’d seen Bryant play in years – to warrant the criticism.
Sunday wasn’t one of those days. Gasol didn’t receive as many touches as he wanted – “Maybe I let that affect me early on,” he said – but he deserved some of the blame for that.
“He’s not naturally aggressive,” Bryant said. “Even if I’m tired, I’m naturally aggressive. You just have to rev him up a little bit, get him going.”
As a whole, the Lakers need to get going. They haven’t shown much since the calendar flipped to April and that doesn’t speak well for their chances of reaching June. They can survive the Hornets, but what if they run into the Thunder in the Western Conference finals? Russell Westbrook(notes) is another quick, physical point guard like Paul, only he’s flanked by Kevin Durant(notes) and Perkins.
The Hornets, given their injuries and lack of collective playoff experience, were supposed to be the easiest draw in the West’s playoff bracket. Yet in many ways, they’re also the worst team for the Lakers to play. So many people picked the Lakers to sweep that they opened these playoffs looking as if they wanted to coast.
Paul will do his best to keep New Orleans competitive. He played with an aggressiveness the Lakers hadn’t seen from him in the regular season. These Hornets have an edge to them that comes not only from Paul, but also their rookie coach, Monty Williams. They’ve been overlooked for much of the season, and that didn’t change even after they took command of Sunday’s game. As the teams walked to the locker rooms at halftime, ABC’s cameras found Bryant sprawled on the sideline, writhing in pain after he banged his neck into an empty courtside seat.
“They told me I was supposed to do an interview,” Paul said. “Then they canceled on me so they could check on Kobe.”
Paul laughed. On Sunday morning, he walked to the arena from the team’s hotel just to soak up the atmosphere. Not even the sight of Gray crumbling to the court with a sprained ankle in the closing moments dimmed his spirits. The Hornets are happy and hungry, and they played like it.
“Our guys came to fight,” Williams said.
The Lakers? They hope Gasol decides to do the same. Kobe, for one, isn’t waiting.