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Analysis: Lakers looking fresh in seventh straight win

By Art Garcia,
Posted Nov 13 2008 3:35AM

NEW ORLEANS -- Chalk one up for the not-so-weary.

An evening after extending their unbeaten run with a sprint to the finish against underperforming Dallas, the Lakers were in the process of thoroughly dismantling a Hornets team coming off three vacation days.

Los Angeles, rarely challenged during its 7-0 start and through three quarters Wednesday night, had a fight on its hands down the stretch. It was precisely the kind of fight Kobe Bryant had been waiting for and Phil Jackson said hadn't materialized two weeks into the season.

Bryant, seemingly pacing himself all night, delivered the knockout punch with a shot clock-beating three-pointer with just over a minute left. The Lakers would hold on for a 93-86 victory over the team many believe is the most serious challenger to their Western Conference crown.

Bryant's superhuman trey with James Posey doing everything but wearing his No. 24 jersey proved to be the play of record. New Orleans (4-3) frantically whittled a 23-point deficit down to three before Bryant rose and drilled a 27-footer with 1:08 remaining.

"Couldn't do a better job than what Pose did," Hornets coach Byron Scott said.

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But the play of the Lakers' collection of talent, in the starting five and off the bench, helped wipe out the normal effects of a back-to-back. Jackson proved as much in Big D, as only Bryant and Pau Gasol played more than 30 minutes against the Mavericks.

"The advantages are the depth and versatility of our team," Lakers point guard Derek Fisher said. "Every night everybody is going to contribute. We won't ever have to expend ourselves or empty the tank in order to win games."

Bryant took just 15 shots and scored 20. Fisher matched that output and did an admirable job staying in front of Chris Paul. Twin towers Gasol and Andrew Bynum combined for 28 points and 14 boards, with Tuesday night's hero Trevor Ariza scoring 10 off the bench.

The Lakers jumped on the hosts right from the tip, racing out to a 20-10 edge. The lead was 11 after the first period and a staggering 21 at the break. New Orleans shot a paltry 28 percent in the first half.

"With the start that we had, I'm very disappointed," Scott said. "But we kept fighting."

Scott wanted to match LA's aggressiveness and dictate the tempo with Paul. Neither worked as planned until the final 12 minutes. Posey and Devin Brown did a number guarding Bryant in the fourth, and the Lakers suddenly became stagnant.

It wasn't that New Orleans wasn't intense for three quarters. You would have thought these teams met in the playoffs last season with the chippiness on display. Paul got into a war of words with Gasol early. Posey and Fisher joined in soon after. Paul and Bynum both earned techs in the first half.

Scott can only marvel at the Lakers' improvement so far. Paul and David West were the only Hornets with any sustained impact offensively. LA's length, quickness and cohesion disrupted New Orleans, especially when it had the ball.

"Their defense is much better this year than it was last year," said Scott, a former Lakers guard. "Obviously, that series against Boston taught them that they can't win a championship on the offensive end."

The Hornets are learning some valuable lessons themselves. They came into this 2008-09 season as a trendy pick to upend the Lakers. New Orleans wasn't going to sneak up on anyone after a run to the Southwest Division title and West semis, and the offseason addition of two-time champ Posey.

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The added attention appeared justified after the Hornets cruised through the preseason undefeated and won the first three that count. Atlanta then came into the Big Easy and, as Scott explained, knocked the Hornets off their "high horse."

"We can't walk into any gym and think we're going to win because of everything that's been written or said," Scott said.

The Lakers are acting like a team that takes those words to heart. Making any grand pronouncements now would be foolish and premature, but it should be noted that the Lakers have four victories of at least 18 points. The last three wins -- Houston, Dallas and New Orleans -- are against playoff teams from last season.

"It's still extremely early to say where we're at as a team in terms of our ability to win certain types of games," Fisher said. "But at the same time it's extremely positive anytime we can go on the road in the NBA as a whole, but in particular in the Western Conference where so many teams are good on their home floor. In the course of an 82-game season, road wins are huge."

The Lakers are off to their best start since also opening with a 7-spot in 2001-02. Jackson won the third of his three LA titles that season.

Could this be a fourth?

"It's a different team altogether," Jackson said when comparing that '02 champs to this season.

"Every year you have a different team," he continued. "Sometimes you carry a group over a little bit longer, but the chemistry changes in groups. Players become more mature, they get older, they help each other out more, whatever."

If that's the case, look out West.

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