Sunday, April 17, 2011
Paul leads Hornets past Lakers in stunning opener
LOS ANGELES (AP) Chris Paul and a few teammates sneaked across the street from their hotel to Staples Center the night before the New Orleans Hornets began the postseason, eagerly hoisting up a few shots in the shadows of the Lakers' imposing championship banners.
With their tumultuous regular season finally a memory, Paul said the Hornets were almost unbearably eager for the playoffs to start.
Maybe that's why New Orleans got the drop on the defending champs in a stunning series opener.
Paul had 33 points, 14 assists and seven rebounds, flawlessly leading the Hornets down the stretch of a 109-100 victory Sunday.
Carl Landry scored 17 points and Jarrett Jack added 15 for the seventh-seeded Hornets, who overcame Los Angeles' major size advantage with cagey defense and a disciplined offensive approach that led to just three turnovers, tying an NBA playoff record.
New Orleans also got a phenomenal game from Paul, who scored 17 points in the fourth quarter and led a decisive 8-0 run after the Lakers trimmed their lead to four points. Repeatedly shredding Los Angeles' defense on pick-and-roll plays, the four-time All-Star was at his playmaking apex.
"I've struggled all season long, trying to figure out where to pick my spots," said Paul, who inscribed his sneakers with the No. 30 of injured teammate David West, New Orleans' leading scorer. "It's the playoffs. It's a whole other energy."
Game 2 is Wednesday at Staples Center.
A few hours after eighth-seeded Memphis produced a series-opening surprise in San Antonio, Paul and his Hornets put another intriguing wrinkle in the NBA postseason.
Kobe Bryant scored 34 points for the Lakers, who opened the postseason with the same halfhearted effort that comprised much of their regular season after three straight exhausting trips to the NBA finals.
Los Angeles' 7-foot starters, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, were widely expected to be an awful matchup for smallish New Orleans, but New Orleans rookie coach Monty Williams concocted an impressive game plan to minimize the big men's impact.
"Our defense, I thought, was late," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "I think we were late on everything. They were the aggressors, and they stayed aggressive. ... I think they respect the Hornets. I just don't think they were keyed in on what they have to do."
Ron Artest had 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Lakers, who swept the four-game regular-season series with New Orleans. They had won their last six playoff series openers since Houston beat them in the Western Conference semifinals in 2009 on Los Angeles' way to Bryant's fourth championship.
Los Angeles never grabbed a second-half lead despite another dynamite game from Bryant. The most glaring problem was Gasol, who struggled to eight points - just two more than his season low - on 2-for-9 shooting with just six rebounds.
A few people in the Staples Center crowd pointedly heckled Gasol in the final minutes, while other fans booed as they streamed out of the building.
"I'm disappointed, yeah. Stunned, surprised," Gasol said. "But we were the ones responsible for that to happen, so we have to own up to that and come back to work in the next couple of days and get the series where we want it to be."
The playoff pressure of Staples Center clearly didn't bother the Hornets, who lost West to a serious knee injury last month and lost three straight games to finish the regular season. Williams made his playoff debut along with Emeka Okafor, Marco Belinelli and Jack - but the Hornets had more poise down the stretch.
Artest's free throws pulled Los Angeles within four with 3 minutes left, but Paul led the Hornets to points on four consecutive possessions, setting off a celebration confined entirely to the Hornets' bench.
"A lot of people counted us out from the beginning," Landry said. "A lot of people probably still count us out. That's cool. A lot of people might think this game might have been lucky, but we play as a team. We play as a collective unit. We're without David West, but we've still got dudes on this team that can step up."
Lamar Odom had 10 points and one rebound in 31 minutes of play, while Bynum contributed 13 points and nine rebounds but wasn't his usual defensive force in his first game back from a hyperextended right knee.
"It's always good for us, when I think about the personality of our team, to be humbled a little bit," Odom said. "Sometimes that's the best thing for us, to be humbled. To lose on our home court in the playoffs, probably against a team that people think we should handle easy, I think it's good for us."
Aaron Gray had a season-high 12 points for New Orleans, but was helped off the court by teammates with 1:07 to play after Gasol accidentally stepped on his right foot while fighting for a rebound. Williams said Gray has a mildly sprained ankle.
Bryant bruised his neck when he tumbled into the front row after hitting a jumper in the final minute of the first half, spending the last 10 seconds facedown in pain while Artest hit a 43-foot jumper at the buzzer. Bryant got up slowly and missed halftime warmups, but returned without missing a beat.
NOTES: G Trey Johnson, recalled from the D-League by the Lakers just five days earlier, played six minutes in the second quarter. Johnson was with the Lakers in training camp, and he suited up for Toronto earlier this season. ... Bryant collided with the courtside chair next to Tim Leiweke, the chief executive of sports conglomerate AEG. ... Fans near courtside included Jack Black, Seal, will.i.am, former Arizona forward Derrick Williams and Brewers owner Mark Attanasio.