They’re Off

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What are we to make after the two best teams in the NBA’s Western Conference lost last Sunday in Game 1 of the opening-round of the playoffs?

Not long after Memphis edged top-seeded San Antonio by three points, the No. 2 seeded Lakers were stunned by New Orleans 109-100 at the Staples Center as point guard Chris Paul played like a man on a mission, especially in the fourth quarter when he scored 17 of his team-best 33 points.

For Paul it was more than mere points, as he controlled the tempo. There was no answer from Derek Fisher or shooting guard Kobe Bryant, who tried his hand late in the final quarter.

Paul was a magician, adding a game-high 14 assists, with seven rebounds and four steals.

“I just wanted to be aggressive and find my spot,’’ he said. “They don’t call as many fouls in the playoffs.”

Few gave the Hornets — who turned the ball over three times —any chance, and many expected they’d get swept in four games because power forward David West, their leading scorer, is out with a knee injury.

Things don’t always go as planned because the Hornets, who didn’t win a game in four tries with the Lakers this season, led virtually wire-to-wire.

New Orleans shot 51.9 percent from the floor, and made 59 percent of its attempts in the opening half.

The Hornets led, 73-72, entering the fourth quarter, and were ahead 82-76 with 9:19 left. New Orleans carved out a 90-85 lead with 5:54 showing, and 94-87 when Paul drained a jumper with 4:24 left.

Paul made a decision to attack the hoop and was fouled numerous times, making nine of 12 free throws.

Paul connected on 11 of 18 shots from the field, and two of three from the three-point arc.

New Orleans power forward Carl Landry scored 17 points and hauled in five rebounds.

The Lakers, who shot 45.9 percent from the field, came within 98-92 and 2:10 left, but that would be it as the upstart Hornets were abuzz in the closing moments.

In the end, Bryant’s game-high 34 points, five assists and four rebounds were hollow.

Just as important, Bryant (16 points at the intermission) received very little help from power forward Pau Gasol (eight points and six boards) and reserve power forward Lamar Odom (10 points with one rebound).

Often-injured center Andrew Bynum totaled 13 points with nine rebounds, and small forward Ron Artest had 16 points and 11 rebounds.

Overlooked was New Orleans’ bench, which outscored the Lakers’ reserves 39-21, as point guard Jarrett Jack dropped in 15 points, and center Aaron Gray, who rolled his ankle and left with assistance, tallied 12 points.

“Our bench was fantastic,’’ said Paul. “I thought Aaron was the player of the game, and I hope that he’s going to be fine.”

New Orleans pulled in front 19-17 with 2:07 left in the first quarter, and led 26-24 after 12 minutes.

The Hornets flew to a 33-24 lead with 8:46 showing, 47-38 with 2:24 left on Gray’s dunk and 55-47 at the half.

Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at richsports5@sbcglobal.net.

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