NBA: Lakers even series but have long way to go

Andrew Bynum shoots a free throw in a playoff ...

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LOS ANGELES — You could see it in the frustration of Kobe Bryant when the ball would not go in the basket or when he flailed at Chris Paul. You could feel it in the way Pau Gasol shook his head over another head-scratching performance. And you could hear it in the crowd’s groans when Ron Artest fired up one air ball after another.

The Los Angeles Lakers evened their first-round Western Conference series Wednesday with an 87-78 win over the New Orleans Hornets, but this was not about restoring order.

The Lakers won, but in the process they also showed that the Hornets’ stunning win in the series opener was no fluke.

And that their trip to the Big Easy figures to be anything but.

“Obviously, we understand that it’s tough right now,” Gasol said. “By losing Game 1, we made it really tough. They’re playing really well. They’re playing hard, they’re playing together and they’re giving themselves a chance.”

The Lakers had to win without leaning on Bryant (11 points) or Gasol (eight points), but instead relied on their defense, grit, hustle and (believe it or not) their bench.

And when is the last time anyone could say that?

Of course, if the Hornets hadn’t missed so many free throws (they made just 20 of 32) or turned the ball over 16 times (after committing just three turnovers Sunday), then the Lakers might have a lot more to answer for.

Particularly after Trevor Ariza, who defended Bryant, added 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists.

The Lakers’ problem is that the Hornets, who were swept by L.A. in four regular-season games, think they have a chance.

“We know we didn’t play up to our potential, starting with me,” said Paul, who may have had mortal numbers — 20 points and nine assists — for once but sank 3-pointers at the ends of the second and third quarters, once completely spinning Bryant around in the process. “We fought, but we know we could have played a better game.”

For three days, there was talk of how the Lakers would wake up, play harder, make the requisite adjustments and all would be well. Well, it wasn’t — not at first when Paul continued to carve up the Lakers on pick-and-rolls, and the Hornets jumped to a 20-11 lead.

The Lakers went to Gasol early and often, and though he was aggressive, he didn’t make many shots.

So, they turned to an alternative for a spark: the bench.

Lamar Odom, who had an equally poor game on Sunday — one rebound in 31 minutes — appeared inspired by the NBA Sixth Man Award he won on Tuesday. He was honored before the start of the game.

Then he showed why he won the award.

Odom hit three baskets in the final 2:20, helping the Lakers draw even at 23 to end the first period. They never trailed again.

Odom, who finished with 16 points on 8-of-12 shooting and seven rebounds, wasn’t the only member of the bench to contribute. Steve Blake returned from the chicken pox to collect five assists and three rebounds in 18 minutes, and Matt Barnes had two steals and eight points, making all four of his shots. Shannon Brown also hit a 3-pointer and had three assists.

More than their statistical lines, the bench players brought an energy to the game that matched the Hornets, and they could get up and down the court with New Orleans — something that Andrew Bynum and Gasol have struggled to do in this series.

Soon, it rubbed off.

Bryant was bodying up Paul all over the court, Carl Landry found his path to the rim more obstructed and Bynum cleared rebounds with his elbows escorting the ball back down.

“That was the defense we played late in the season when we had our little run,” Phil Jackson said, referring to the stretch after the All-Star break when the Lakers won 17 of 18 games. “That’s basically what we had to do to win a game like this, it was tough sledding in there.”

Is this type of slog good for the Lakers right now?

“Who knows?” Jackson said.

It sure beats the alternative.

Bynum, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds, said the Lakers had to watch the videotape of Game 1 four times over the past three days. He, for one, was tired of it.

“It was painful,” Bynum said.

Not as painful as this one might have been.

Billy Witz| 22 Avril 2011| Fox News|

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