NEW ORLEANS — Phil Jackson had a message for his team. It wasn't pretty.
"You sucked the joy out of a good victory," the Lakers coach said.
Indeed, what looked like another blowout victory turned into a set of blown tires for the Lakers in a 93-86 escape Wednesday against the New Orleans Hornets.
The Lakers had a 21-point lead early in the fourth quarter, saw it whacked down to three, but recovered in time to remain the league's only undefeated team.
That they beat one of the more notable teams in the Western Conference was almost lost amid a fourth-quarter collapse that was pre-empted only by Kobe Bryant's late three-point shot and key defensive plays by Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher.
The Hornets never led, but Fisher was the best image of the Lakers after the game, answering reporters' questions quietly with his feet submerged in an ice bin and his knees wrapped in bulky ice bags.
It was that kind of night for the Lakers, who moved to 7-0 overall, 4-0 on the road.
It looked like they would bounce out of New Orleans Arena without a care in the NBA world after taking a 51-30 halftime lead.
The first-half stats were the print-and-save types for them. They forced the Hornets into 12-for-43 shooting (27.9%), and, predictably, a steep deficit.
The third quarter was pretty much a draw, but then the Hornets unfurled a 24-8 run to make it interesting. Like, real interesting.
Chris Paul's running bank shot pulled the Hornets within 83-80 with 1:33 to play, but Bryant answered with a three-pointer over James Posey as the shot clock trickled down to almost zero.
"I'm never surprised to see him do anything," said Fisher, who matched Bryant's 20 points with 20 of his own. "I said several years ago that he's one of those rare guys in the history of the game that I think can actually make the ball go in. When it's a tough shot and three people are on him and he's falling away, mentally he's able to lock in on that rim and get the ball in the basket. I think that's what separates him from some of the best to ever play."
It also separated the Lakers from the pesky Hornets, who fell to a surprising 4-3.
Fisher and Odom helped the cause by reviving a defense that had gone missing for almost 11 minutes.
After Bryant's three-pointer, Odom wrenched the ball from David West's grasp, leading to a pair of free-throw attempts for Pau Gasol at the other end. (Gasol made one, providing an 87-80 lead with 54.8 seconds left.)
Then, with the Hornets again down six, it was Fisher's turn to steal the ball from West. Fisher was fouled a few seconds later, made two free throws, and the Lakers took an 89-81 lead with 37.8 seconds left.
"We're perfectionists," Bryant said. "We want to make sure we do everything well. You look at it as a learning experience this early in the season."
The Hornets were certainly amped up for the game.
Posey bee-lined toward Gasol and the two traded words after a timeout was called in the first quarter. Each player was charged with a technical.
Play was stopped a few minutes later when Paul was hit with a technical for jawing at the officials after a non-call.
Unfortunately for the Hornets, their game didn't match their energy in the first half.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, the fourth quarter had yet to come.
Paul led the charge, collecting 16 points and five assists in the quarter. The runner-up to Bryant in last season's MVP race, Paul finished with 30 points and 13 assists to become the first player in league history with at least 20 points and 10 assists in seven consecutive games to start a season.
In the end, though, the Lakers remained unbeaten.
Not that Jackson was enthralled about it.
"If at the end of the season it's like this, then it would mean a lot, wouldn't it?" he said sarcastically.