Photo by Associated Press

Lakers/Hornets Game 3 Preview

Wheels down in New Orleans.

The Lakers are headed to New Orleans (they’re actually there right now) and will hopefully be leaving their “baggage” behind in L.A.

Why might you ask? Because so far, just about everything that could go wrong has.

Chris Paul went off in Game 1 and regained his swagger. Aaron Gray went in Game 1, as well, and realized he could actually play the game of basketball. Carl Landry and Trevor Ariza each proved capable of being a decent sidekick to CP3.

Conversely, Kobe Bryant struggled in Game 2. Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum struggled in Game 1. Pau Gasol was “soft” as Charmin toilet paper in both affairs.

The Lakers have played inconsistently, without a great showing of effort. To be honest, their execution offensively has been atrocious.

Their defense on the other hand (at least strictly speaking Game 2), wasn’t too bad. It was better than average, but not necessarily good and definitely not great.

Heading into Game 3, they’ll need to continue their defensive dominance, so to speak. Chris Paul cannot go off for another amazing performance. They must keep him around 20-10 for the night. Anything more and L.A. will lose. They can live with Landry or Ariza dropping 20 points, but not Paul getting another 30-15.

Other than that, their defense has been solid. Keep aggressively defending the pick-and-roll, crashing the defensive boards and containing the guards’ penetration (mainly CP3).

To be frank, the Lakers just need to make offensive adjustments. Hopefully, they’ll read this and listen.

Here are the three keys for the Lakers in Game 3:

Photo by Associated Press

1. More production from Pau Gasol.

Pau, Pau, Pau. Where have you been? I mean, you know the playoffs started right?

Game 2’s preview called out all of the Lakers’ bigs. Game 3’s “calling out” is just for one guy in particular.

After bounce-back games for LO and Drew, they’re off the hook. But Pau? He may have played even worse in Game 2!

Seriously though, if you’re going to be too afraid and hesitant to shoot down low, at least rebound the ball (averaging 5.5 rebounds through two games) or defend the hoop. Gasol isn’t doing either of those things.

He’s getting abused by one of the worst front-courts in the NBA! The only person on the Hornets who should have any remote chance at shutting down Gasol is Emeka Okafor, but even that would leave Bynum would a major mismatch down low. Pau should be feasting on this small front-court!

For the Lakers to win with ease (or just win), they’ll need a big game from Pau (unless LO, Drew or Kobe have HUGE games). At least a 20-10. If Pau can assert himself down low, be aggressive and remain on the block, good things will happen.

Photo by AP/Mark J. Terrill

2. Proper shot distribution.

The intangibles and leadership that Derek Fisher brings to this team is immeasurable. The defense, timely shots and intimidation that Ron Artest brings to the Lakers is truly underrated.

But these guys should not be combining for 23 shots…. ever! Especially when they go 8-for-23 (and that’s a good night for them).

Pau, Drew and LO combined for 33 shots, which is a major improvement upon last game. At the same time, in a game where Kobe struggled and only attempted 10 field-goals (along with eight free-throws), the big men should be getting the ball more, not the guards and wings.

Obviously the Hornets aren’t just going to allow the Lakers’ big men to get the ball, but at the same time relying on long jumpers from D-Fish and Ron Ron isn’t going to get the LakeShow anywhere. All it does is lead to fast-break opportunities off of misses for Chris Paul, Jarrett Jack and Willie Green, which the Lakers don’t want or need.

Additionally, where’d the shooting confidence of the “Killer B’s” go? This group needs to be more effective scoring-wise and a combined 10 shot attempts won’t get the job done. This group should be somewhere around 15 or so per game.

Matt Barnes hit all four of his shots, which was an extension of his impressive play of late. Steve Blake and Shannon Brown, on the other hand, combined for eight assists but only 1-for-6 shooting. These two definitely need to step it up, as they will be getting a lot of open looks later on in the playoffs.

Simply put, the ball needs to go inside more, which goes along with Pau needing to step it up.

3. Get Okafor in foul trouble again.

This is a major key. It may the most important one.

Emeka Okafor is the second-best scoring big man (third when West is healthy) and best defensive-big man on the Hornets.

Against L.A., he has averaged 5.5 points and 3.5 rebounds on 5-for-9 shooting, 1-for-3 from the free-throw line and 0 blocks through two games.

He has struggled in both games because of foul trouble, but things will most likely be different in front of his home crowd (yes that’s a dig at the refs). If Okafor goes off in New Orleans, it may be a major game-changer.

Okafor is easily capable of putting up 15 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks. That difference (a major positive because he’s a much better player than D.J. Mbenga or Jason Smith) could have instant ramifications for the Hornets (good ones too).

The key will be L.A.’s big men (I see a trend!). They need to mercilessly attack Okafor and get him into foul trouble early. If he reaches the 30+ minute plateau, the Lakers’ bigs have failed at their jobs.

This isn’t just the big men’s responsibility though. The guards and wings need to be aggressive in their trips to the basket. If the Lakers really want to, they will get Okafor in foul trouble again and watch the dividends pay off.

Final prediction:

After seeing a somewhat high-scoring Game 1, I predicted way too high of a score for Game 2. In addition, I didn’t anticipate the Lakers struggling as much as they did, as I thought they would want to send the Hornets a message and a knockout blow.

For this game, I’m seeing one of two things. I think the Lakers will either come out and crush the Hornets’ hope and spirits (like they should have in both Game 1 and Game 2), or it’ll be another down-to-the-wire close game.

To me, both are scenarios are very likely. I’m expecting the latter, though, but the former won’t surprise me, as L.A. is definitely capable of doing so. The problem with a close game is that the Hornets have a great closer in CP3, who is not able to score whenever needed, but dish to a wide-open teammate too. We’ll see how that goes.

This one will be close(r) but I see Lakers prevailing. At least for now.

Lakers 97, Hornets 92

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