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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Hornets get over the fear factor against Lakers

With Chris Paul and David West on fire, New Orleans shows it is a real contender in the Western Conference.

January 07, 2009|MARK HEISLER

Oh, there you are.

In a week seemingly dedicated to auditioning Western Conference contenders, having identified none to this point and hoping to keep it that way as long as possible, the Lakers got some bad news Tuesday night.

They're not immortal. The fat lady hasn't sung.

Having lost to one West team all season, the Sacramento Kings, who don't figure to be there at the end, the Lakers crumbled at the end of Tuesday's game and lost, 116-105, to an actual West challenger, the New Orleans Hornets.

With two stars, Chris Paul (32 points, 15 assists) and David West (40 points, 11 rebounds), the Hornets are the plucky crew that chased the Lakers to the wire last season, finishing one game behind them, and hope to do it again.

Of course, after losing the first two games of the season series, both in New Orleans, the Hornets came into this one determined to show everyone they could still play with the Lakers, starting with themselves.

"For our psyche, we've got to play one of those games where we know we can beat them," Coach Byron Scott said before the game.

"I don't think right now they think we can, although I know in my heart I think we can."

Scott knows all about Lakers psych jobs, having been part of the Showtime teams that prided themselves on being able to strike fear into opponents' hearts. In warmups.

In the '80s, the Lakers ran onto the floor in the Forum with Magic Johnson in the lead, wearing a look that expressed as much disdain as confidence.

"We just followed right behind Earvin," Scott said. "Everybody swaggers a little different. Some people had rhythm, some people didn't. . . .

"My wife used to always tell me she stood right by the tunnel to watch us come out. I never saw her.

"She said she could look at us and tell if we were focused. It was like the Raiders in the day, when they used to get off the bus with black on, to intimidate people. We just wanted you to know we were coming and we meant business all night long."

Scott still means business. Now, however, he isn't part of an all-star ensemble, but coach of a hopeful little team that's either better than it looks, or doesn't care how much it's outgunned.

These aren't quite the same Hornets who finished last season on a 41-16 roll.

They're now getting so little out of their shooting guard position, Scott joked before the game about going out there himself.

Asked about starting Morris Peterson in place of Rasual Butler, Scott mused, "I've considered more of me coming off the bench and playing, finding someone at the two spot who can make a shot. I think I can, so maybe I'll play."

Then there were his big men, West, who was down almost two rebounds from last season's 8.9 average to 7.0, and Tyson Chandler, down from last season's 11.7 to 8.0.

"I've been trying to figure that out myself, watching some tape," Chandler said before the game. "I see some problems, some habits I picked up I've got to get away from. And I've just got to get after it.

"I started the season kind of slow, banged up and allowed that to slow me, but you can't let knick-knack injuries slow you down. Time for me to pick up the pace."

They all picked it up Tuesday night, starting with Paul, who dominated the first half, scoring 23 points with seven assists, as the Hornets led by as many as 10 points.

Then after Kobe Bryant launched one of his one-man human-wave assaults with a 20-point third quarter and the Lakers went ahead by five points, Paul led the Hornets back again.

When all the Lakers' long shots stopped falling, it was one-sided at the end.

The Showtime Lakers, like Johnson and Scott, like to tell the current Lakers how much better their '80s teams were ("Not even close," Scott said).

Likewise, Byron says the Lakers' swagger at this point is "not even close."

For sure, no one was intimidated Tuesday night. The Lakers still have that to work on, among other things.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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