Western Conference First Round: Hornets vs. Lakers


No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers (57-25) vs. No. 7 New Orleans Hornets (46-36)

It’s L.A. against the team that plays in La.

It’s the second-largest city in the United States vs. the smallest city in the NBA.

It’s a historic franchise that has won 16 league championships, facing a late-1980s expansion team that has only been in existence for 23 years.

It’s a perennial power with many familiar names – including seven men who’ve contributed on back-to-back title teams – against a retooled squad with only two players who’ve been around for more than two seasons.

It’s arguably the most successful head coach in the history of professional basketball, matching wits with a first-year sideline leader, who at age 39 is the second-youngest active head coach in the league.

If you closely examine all 30 teams in today’s NBA, it might be difficult to find a pair with fewer things in common than the Lakers and Hornets. The Lakers’ 16 NBA titles include them prevailing each of the past two years, as well as three others from 2000-02. When Los Angeles won the 1988 crown, it gave the Lakers their 11th championship in team history. Five months later, the Hornets played their first-ever official game. The Lakers and Hornets weren’t even in the same conference until 2004-05, when divisional realignment shifted New Orleans to the West.

Entering this opening-round series, if you added up the entire playoff-game experience of the players who are available to suit up for New Orleans, it totaled 120 games. By comparison, Derek Fisher (199 career playoff games) and Kobe Bryant (198) have both easily surpassed that number on their own. The Hornets’ most experienced postseason performer was Trevor Ariza, whose 35 career games would’ve ranked 11th if he were a member of the Lakers, behind Fisher, Bryant, Lamar Odom (92), Luke Walton (87), Pau Gasol (79), Ron Artest (67), Joe Smith (57), Andrew Bynum (52), Shannon Brown (45) and Theo Ratliff (43).

In another stark contrast between these two clubs, the Lakers entered 2010-11 with observers predicting a third straight championship. Anything less than a title probably will be deemed as an unsuccessful season. Meanwhile, the majority of NBA analysts didn’t expect New Orleans to even be here in the playoffs.

Here’s a look at the projected lineups for both teams (Note: the Lakers used two different starting lineups in their final two regular season games, replacing Andrew Bynum with Lamar Odom after Bynum sustained an in-game injury April 12 vs. San Antonio):

Chris Paul vs. Derek Fisher
Like the teams they play for, the 25-year-old Paul and the 36-year-old Fisher don’t share many similarities. Paul is a dual-threat floor general who can score or distribute and frequently has the ball in his hands, while Fisher is primarily is required to get open on the weakside and make spot-up perimeter shots. Paul is a four-time All-Star who’s had to carry a significant load since Day 1 of his rookie season, while Fisher has been a solid role player. Fisher’s clutch performances have quietly been one factor behind the Lakers’ repeated success in the postseason.

Marco Belinelli vs. Kobe Bryant
The matchup at the 2 pits a fourth-year pro, now on his third NBA team, in his playoff debut against a 15-year player who has spent his entire career with the same franchise. Belinelli is New Orleans’ most accurate three-point shooter; the Hornets will need him to drain open looks to keep the Lakers from swarming Paul and Carl Landry. Perennial MVP candidate Bryant has frequently made momentum-killing shots against New Orleans in recent seasons. The difficult-to-stop, versatile scorer averaged 26.8 points per game against the Hornets during four regular-season wins.

Trevor Ariza vs. Ron Artest
Although both technically signed as free agents, the Lakers and Rockets essentially “traded” these players for each other during the 2009 offseason. After the Lakers won the NBA title in ’09 with Ariza as their starting 3, they did likewise in 2010 with Artest filling the same role. Artest quieted a legion of skeptics by delivering in the clutch for L.A., including a 20-point performance during a Game 7 NBA Finals win over Boston. Ariza and Artest are rarities in that both have often received more acclaim for defensive prowess than offense, particularly in the case of Ariza.

Carl Landry vs. Pau Gasol
Due to the timing of his February trade from Sacramento, Landry only faced the Lakers once this season as a member of the Hornets. In a March 27 defeat in Los Angeles, Landry was a major bright spot, registering 24 points and 10 rebounds, his best game stat-wise with NOLA. The 7-foot Gasol owns a three-inch height advantage on Landry. Gasol has used his length and excellent hands around the basket to terrorize the Hornets in recent years. The native of Spain averaged 22.2 points and 12.8 rebounds (3.8 on offensive boards) during L.A.’s 4-0 regular season sweep.

Emeka Okafor vs. Andrew Bynum
Okafor is one of several Hornets players who improved noticeably after a frustrating 2009-10. While giving up two inches and 30 pounds to the 7-foot Bynum, it will be critical for Okafor to avoid foul trouble. His impact vs. the Lakers during the regular season was minimized by being whistled for four personals in each of his three appearances (he missed the Feb. 5 game due to injury). Like with Gasol, New Orleans has had difficulty keeping Bynum from feasting on point-blank dunks and layups. Bynum shot an ultra-efficient 25-for-39 (64.1 percent) from the field vs. NOLA.

Jarrett Jack has been more effective with each passing month of the season since his trade from Toronto. He is often paired with longtime close friend Paul in a potent small lineup. … Willie Green provides energy, aggressive drives and tough defense, the latter a necessity against the Lakers’ wing players. … At 7 feet, 270 pounds, Aaron Gray provides the Hornets with size against an enormous Los Angeles frontline. … Power forward Jason Smith is a hustler, rebounder and competent jump shooter from 18 to 20 feet. … Rookie small forward Quincy Pondexter is a skilled one-on-one defender and may be NOLA’s most athletic player.

A starter for virtually any other team in the NBA, Lamar Odom gives the Lakers a do-it-all force who can take over games in a reserve role. The left-hander is a frontrunner for the Sixth Man of the Year award. … Shannon Brown helps spark the L.A. “Killer B’s” bench brigade. Brown is one of the NBA’s premier dunkers and improved his perimeter shot significantly this season. … Matt Barnes is a feisty, hard-nosed small forward who returned to the lineup recently after missing two months due to a knee injury. … As a dangerous spot-up shooter, Steve Blake appeared to be a prototypical fit in the Lakers’ offense, but his accuracy has dipped in 2010-11.

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