NEW ORLEANS -- This launch feels more promising for the Lakers than their postseason start one year ago, when they split the opening four games with the young Thunder. The Lakers went on to win a championship last June, and they look like a better team now. "We're a lot healthier this year than last year," said Kobe Bryant, "so that's a big advantage."
The Lakers didn't look especially pleased with themselves after finishing off the Hornets, 98-80, in Game 6 on Thursday and earning a date with Dallas in the conference semifinal. They fully expected to win, having now won nine straight postseason series, and 10 of their last 11 closeout games in the playoffs. All the more worrisome to their challengers was the truth of their captain's view: Both Bryant (24 points in 30 minutes) and center Andrew Bynum (an intimidating 18 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in 29 minutes) are functioning from positions of strength, as opposed to last year, when both were dealing with knee injuries that would require offseason surgery.
Much as they did last year, they've needed a few games to realize how to play through their enormously skilled front line. But they're on their way now, despite a two-point, 0-for-3 first half Thursday from power forward Pau Gasol. Over the final two quarters, the variety of his talents would be demonstrated by a 14-point (5-for-9) performance that helped inch a 40-34 lead at halftime up to 52-42 in the third quarter.
Bynum was aggressive throughout. "He's our anchor defensively," said Bryant. "But on top of that he has shown the ability to knock down jumpers, which is going to give teams a headache. We have two 7-footers who can pick and pop as well as roll to the basket."
The Hornets looked tight -- they converted but three jumpers from beyond the foul line in the first half -- and Chris Paul (11 assists with five turnovers, and 10 points on nine shots) was unable to lift them to a third upset win in this series. "He was tired," said Bryant. "He was all over the place this series and tonight he looked a little tired, but it wasn't something that we did defensively."
The last two games of this series showed why the Lakers will be so difficult to beat over the course of seven games. They may be exposed here and there by the more athletic slashers, but no team is more impressive when the Lakers engage in the discipline of playing through Gasol, Bynum and Sixth Man of the Year, Lamar Odom (14 points, eight rebounds and four assists). "We're one of the few teams that will go out of its way to play inside-out," said point guard Derek Fisher, who finished three big shots to loosen up what had been a tight opening half. "That style we play allows us to win games on the road, even if we're not playing great."
By early in the fourth, the Lakers' second-unit had stretched the lead out to 20. That run was developed in part by Ron Artest, who helped the Lakers pull away in the third quarter when he grabbed a loose offensive rebound to create a layup for Gasol, and then blindsided Paul underneath his own basket to strip him of a rebound -- a play Artest celebrated by flexing his biceps, fists over head after he'd converted the ensuing layup. In between, Bryant nailed a catch-and-shoot three after the Lakers had spread the Hornets scrambling defense, and as he ran away he pressed a heavily taped index finger to his lips as if to signal the end of the happy noise these Hornets had generated this season.
It was a surprisingly successful year for a franchise that had been taken over by the league in midseason. Rookie GM Dell Demps had hired a new basketball department and coaching staff while turning over most of the roster, and altogether they challenged the Lakers, despite a late-season knee injury to David West that should have left them with no hope. Undersized power forward Carl Landry (19 points) filled in nicely, but in terms of their impact on the championship race, the Hornets turned out to be one hellacious sparring partner that forced the champs to come together. They can thank Paul for their recent improvements in defending the pick-and-roll.
There's no sense referring to the Lakers as soft any longer, not with the defense they've been playing since the All-Star break, their ability to dominate the paint and the nasty leadership of Bryant. While coach Phil Jackson insisted that a "tremendous" challenge was waiting for them in the next round, he also celebrated the potential of this group because of the versatility of its skilled big men. "They can be as good as any Laker team I've had," he said. Consider that another challenge for a team that thrives on them.