It took until the final moments of the regular season, but last night the Lakers' playoff seeding and first-round opponent came into focus. With their heart-stopping victory in Sacramento, the champs secured the second seed in the West and will face the New Orleans Hornets in the opening round. Game One is at Staples Center on Sunday afternoon.
The pairing is precisely what Laker fans were hoping for. A deeply flawed team, the Hornets present nothing like the dangers posed by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round last year. The Lakers and Hornets played four times in the regular season, and the Lakers won all four by an average of almost 11 points per game. Across the four meetings, the Lakers outscored the Hornets by a startling 0.13 points per possession. This was in keeping with a long-term trend of Laker dominance in the series ever since Pau Gasol joined the team. Of the 13 head-to-head contests with New Orleans since the Gasol trade, the Lakers have won 10.
Size is the wedge issue. The Hornets don't have enough of it, and as a result they struggle both to score on the inside and to keep the Laker bigs from operating over their heads. They also don't have an elite wing player. Ex-Laker Trevor Ariza is a competent defender, but not on the level of a Tony Allen or Shane Battier, guys who can really make Kobe Bryant work for his looks. Shooting guards Marco Belinelli and Willie Green aren't good enough to make Kobe exert himself defensively. And the Hornets' main weapon, point guard Chris Paul, isn't the kind of turbocharged, Rose/Westbrook attack monster that typically causes problems for the Lakers' PG defense. Seriously, there are lottery teams that match up better with the purple and gold.
Here are three questions to keep an eye on as the series gets under way this weekend.
1. Which version of Andrew Bynum will we see?
For Laker fans, the world stopped turning on Tuesday night, when Andrew Bynum crumpled to the Staples floor with an injury to his reconstituted right knee. It didn't start again until Wednesday afternoon, when an MRI revealed nothing more serious than a bone bruise and the Lakers announced that Drew would be ready for the playoffs. What remains unclear is whether the bruise will impair Bynum's explosiveness. When his mobility is hampered by lingering pain or a lack of match-fitness, Drew's still a useful piece. But when he's close to 100 percent, he can be a nightmare for opponents. The Lakers won't need him to be the latter in the first round but do need to get him moving in that direction.
2. What kind of series does Chris Paul have in him?
It's been a strange season for Chris Paul, filled with pseudo-trade demands, the loss of sidekick David West and bouts of weirdly inconsistent play. Though for the season his numbers are great, there have been some unusually bad performances from him lately -- like last week, when he went scoreless and shot 0-for-6 against the Grizzlies. Against the Lakers Paul has often seemed too selfless for his own team's good. It seems inconceivable that the Hornets could even take a couple games from the Lakers, let alone gun for the upset in any believable way, without Paul coming through with a killer series. Everyone else on the team will struggle to generate points, so Paul will have to look for his own shot far more than he's accustomed to doing.
3. Will the Lakers' bench be really bad, or just bad?
Lamar Odom is awesome, of course. But Shannon Brown has spent the past six weeks dribbling frantically on the perimeter before hoisting up off-target jumpers. Steve Blake has the chicken pox. (No really.) Matt Barnes has sat out the past couple games with soreness in his right knee. And Luke Walton's play has cast the Adam Morrison Era in a flattering new light.
This is the bench Phil Jackson's taking into battle?
He'll spend the first round picking through this mess and figuring out what can be salvaged. All these guys have deep postseason experience, so it's not a question of who can handle the playoff spotlight. It's about who can be trusted not to put the Lakers into a massive hole when the starters need a few moments' rest.
One name to keep in mind is Trey Johnson. The one they call Trey J was signed from the D League before the Sacramento game and looked good in limited action. I know, I know... there's no way Phil gets comfortable giving playoff minutes to a new arrival. But Johnson isn't entirely new. He spent training camp with the Lakers and has been playing for the Lakers' D-League affiliate in Bakersfield, so he has familiarity with the sets. If Blake and Brown continue to supply nothing but bad times, Phil might start dialing up Trey J as an emergency option.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.