Lakers Gameday | 04/11/08 | Lakers 107, Hornets 104
Kobe, Lakers keep Hornets at bay to lock up Pacific Division title
Kobe Bryant flashed a big smile after leading the Los Angeles Lakers to victory in their most important game of the season.
It was the smile of a champion.
"It's good to be No. 1," Bryant said after the Lakers blew all but one point of a 30-point lead before beating the New Orleans Hornets 107-104 Friday night to clinch the Pacific Division championship. "This was the first step. We want to take another one Sunday."
Bryant had 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists for the Lakers (55-25), who will enter the playoffs seeded no lower than third in the Western Conference, meaning they'll have homecourt advantage in the first round.
"It's a pleasant surprise," Bryant said of the Lakers' first division title in four years. "It's a testament to our hard work and our unity."
Bryant had a reason to be surprised, considering the Lakers haven't won a playoff series since reaching the NBA Finals in 2004, and weren't expected to be in this position before the season started.
The Lakers (55-25) have a chance to do even more. They trail the conference-leading Hornets by a half-game, and will win the West if they can beat visiting San Antonio on Sunday and Sacramento on Tuesday night and New Orleans (55-24) loses one of its final three games. The Hornets play road games against the Kings and Dallas Mavericks and a home game against the Clippers.
If Los Angeles and New Orleans finish with the same record, the Lakers win the West and home-court advantage at least until the NBA finals because of a better record against conference opponents. The teams split their four regular-season games.
"I think we will win our last three games, so if that means we'll win the West, I guess so," Hornets star Chris Paul said.
Pau Gasol added 25 points, Derek Fisher scored 15, and Lamar Odom had 13 points and 16 rebounds for the Lakers, who never trailed for the 14th time this season but weren't assured of victory until the final minute.
"We were happy that we didn't get into 50 minutes today, only 48," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
Peja Stojakovic led the Hornets with 24 points. Tyson Chandler added 18 points and eight rebounds, Jannero Pargo scored 17 points and Paul had 15 points and 17 assists.
"They were just physical and much more aggressive," Hornets coach Byron Scott said. "They were playing with a purpose. We were out there playing a basketball game. And that's the difference."
The Lakers were as close to perfect as could be in taking a 63-33 lead late in the second quarter. Paul and the Hornets suddenly got their game together, outscoring the Lakers 36-10 to move within four points with 3:51 left in the third period.
Bryant scored 10 points during a 17-6 run that extended the Lakers' lead to 92-77 with 9:25 remaining, and the sellout crowd of 18,997 at Staples Center chanted, "MVP, MVP, MVP" during most of the timeout that followed.
But the Hornets bounced back again, outscoring the Lakers 12-1 to draw within four points. Sasha Vujacic made a 3-pointer to give the Lakers a seven-point lead, but back-to-back 3's by Stojakovic trimmed the Lakers' lead to 96-95 with 3:58 remaining.
Ronny Turiaf then made two free throws for his only points of the game, Fisher added a 3-pointer, and Bryant made a foul shot to give the Lakers a seven-point lead with 2:39 left. New Orleans wasn't closer than five again until Pargo made a 3 at the buzzer.
When asked about the possibility of winning the MVP award, Bryant said: "The MVP nowadays is not an individual award, you really have to make your teammates better and elevate your ballclub. I think for me to be nominated in that race is a tremendous honor because that's really been one of the criticisms people have had of me, how well I make my teammates better. From that standpoint, I feel like I have already won."
A basket by Bryant with just under 4 minutes left in the second quarter extended the Lakers' lead to 30. Paul had only one point before scoring six during a 12-2 run to finish the second quarter, pulling New Orleans within 20.
For the Hornets, that was just the beginning.
Gasol scored 11 points, Bryant and Odom added 10 each, and the Lakers outrebounded the Hornets 14-3 while taking a 39-20 first-quarter lead. The 39 points matched the Lakers' highest-scoring first quarter this season.
Amidst the intensity of the battle for the top spot in the Western Conference -- or perhaps because of it -- Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant have emerged as the two leading candidates to be named NBA MVP.
Their final head-to-head meeting should go a long way toward deciding both.
Paul's New Orleans Hornets can put a stranglehold on the West's No. 1 seed on Friday when they visit Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers, who may be able to call themselves Pacific Division champions with a win.
The Hornets (55-23) have a 1 1/2-game lead over the Lakers (54-25) for the top spot in the tightly packed West, and can guarantee themselves home-court advantage throughout the playoffs with a win on Friday -- which would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker over Los Angeles -- and losses by Southwest Division rivals San Antonio and Houston.
The Lakers, meanwhile, can wrap up their first Pacific Division title since 2003-04 -- when Shaquille O'Neal was their center -- with a win and a Phoenix loss.
"It's probably the game of the year for us," said Hornets forward David West, who is averaging 20.3 points. "Obviously we know we have to defend Kobe, (Pau) Gasol is back healthy. We want to make sure we send a message in terms of us being able to compete with the better teams. There are a lot of things on the line."
At the start of the season, few tabbed New Orleans as a playoff team, much less a conference champion. But Paul's emergence has pushed the Hornets into the league's elite.
Paul, who is averaging 21.2 points and league-highs of 11.5 assists and 2.7 steals, made his first All-Star team and is drawing heavy MVP consideration.
"It would be an honor," Paul said. "It is an honor to be mentioned amongst it. If it does come, my teammates understand that they are the reason, they are the reason I am even being mentioned."
Paul had 19 points and 16 assists -- his 52nd double-double -- in the Hornets' 122-90 win over Minnesota on Wednesday, their franchise-record 55th win.
"We are not celebrating after this win," Paul said. "We won't celebrate until we clinch the Western Conference."
Paul has certainly looked like one of the league's best players when the Hornets have met the Lakers. He had an NBA season-high 21 assists in the teams' first meeting of the year, a 118-104 New Orleans win at Staples Center on Nov. 6, and has averaged 26.0 points and 14.3 assists in helping the Hornets win two of three against Los Angeles.
Bryant appears to be Paul's chief competition for the award, somewhat of a surprise considering he spent the offseason rumored to be on his way out of Los Angeles following a trade request.
But after a tumultuous summer, he's averaging 28.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists, numbers seemingly worthy of his first MVP award.
"It would be special. It would be a tremendous honor," said Bryant.
One of Bryant's reasons for requesting a trade was the lack of talent around him, but as his teammates have proven capable of contributing -- seven other Lakers average at least 8.0 points -- Bryant has begun to trust them.
"(It's his) best year ever as far as an overall team player," said Bryant's coach, Phil Jackson. "I think the judgment that I kind of make is, how much better do you make your teammates? This has been one of Kobe's finest years in that regard."
Luke Walton led six Lakers in double figures on Thursday, scoring 18 in their 106-78 rout of the Los Angeles Clippers. But he was already looking ahead to their showdown against the Hornets.
"We can survive Chris Paul doing his thing," Walton said. "We've got to make sure the other guys don't kill us."
New Orleans has won its last two visits to Staples Center against the Lakers by an average of 15 points.Copyright 2007 by STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited
NOTES & CONNECTIONS
The Lakers are 1-2 against the Hornets this year with one game remaining in their season series. The Lakers dropped last season’s series with New Orleans 1-2 for just the third time since the Hornets joined the NBA prior to the 1988-89 season. The Lakers are 5-5 against the Hornets in their last 10 overall games. The Lakers are 8-3 all-time against the Hornets at STAPLES Center and 5-3 against the Hornets at home since the team moved to New Orleans. In their last 10 road games against the Hornets, the Lakers have gone 6- 4. Since the Hornets move to New Orleans from Charlotte prior to the 2002-03 season, the Lakers have gone 5-2 at New Orleans Arena while going 0-2 at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City during their temporary relocation from 2005-07. Under head coach Phil Jackson, the Lakers are 13-7 against the Hornets. In 2006, the Lakers and Hornets took part in the city of New Orleans first professional sports game following Hurricane Katrina when they met at the New Orleans Arena March 8, 2006. The Lakers won that contest 113-107 behind 40 points from Kobe Bryant. Last season, Bryant scored a series record 50 points 3/23/07, becoming just the second player in NBA history to score 50-plus points in four consecutive games. In their first meeting of the season 11/6/07, Peja Stojakovic made a Lakers opponent record 10 three-point field goals while Chris Paul became only the seventh Lakers opponent to record at least 21 assists in a game and the first since John Stockton did so in April of 1990. Additionally, Hornets head coach Byron Scott played 11 seasons for the Lakers including his final NBA campaign in 1996-97 with then rookie Kobe Bryant. Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons spent the 2004-05 and 2005- 06 seasons as an assistant coach on Scott’s staff in New Orleans. Hornets guard Jannero Pargo played 47 career games with the Lakers in 2002-03 and 2003-04, averaging 2.1 points and 1.1 assists in 8.6 minutes.
LAKERS CLINCH PLAYOFF BERTH, MAGIC NUMBER TO CLINCH THE PACIFIC STANDS AT 3
BRYANT NAMED WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYER OF THE WEEK FOR 3rd TIME THIS SEASON
This is the 19th time Bryant has earned Western Conference Player of the Week honors (11/4/01, 1/20/02, 11/3/02, 12/8/02, 1/12/03, 2/2/03, 2/23/03, 2/17/04, 3/22/04, 11/13/05, 12/18/05, 12/25/05, 1/22/06, 4/16/06, 3/18/07, 3/25/07, 1/13/08, 3/2/08, 4/6/08) since the award was separated by Conference. He has twice earned NBA Player of the Week honors (4/16/00 and 12/24/00), giving him 21 total career Player of the Week awards.Click here to read the full Game Notes