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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Hornets have lost their sting

They were close to the top two seasons ago, now they look like a lottery team.

November 09, 2009|MARK HEISLER | ON THE NBA

I'm confused, is this the preseason or the season?

And how do you tell the difference?

The Lakers were without Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol on Sunday night. Kobe Bryant scored 26 points in the first half, two in the second, and left with 6:58 left, as they rolled over another overmatched little team.

Oh, those were the New Orleans Hornets?

Right! Light-blue pinstriped unies, Byron Scott on the sideline, Chris Paul, brilliant as ever, David West, Peja Stojakovic . . .

Aside from that, they could be cardboard cutouts.

As recently as the spring of 2008, many of these Hornets played the Lakers here for No. 1 in the West the last weekend of the season.

The Hornets were small, lacked depth and had never competed on that level before, but didn't seem to notice or care.

Nor did falling behind by 30 points discourage them, coming back to draw within a single point before finally falling, 107-104.

Unfortunately, reality has since begun asserting itself with a vengeance.

The Hornets dropped seven games in the standings last season, going from 56 wins to 49, before exiting in the first round.

Now, with the Hornets off to a 2-5 start, going out in the first round is starting to look like the impossible dream.

Scott, coach of the year in 2008, is on the last year of his contract with no extension forthcoming, meaning he had better think of something fast.

Unflappable as ever and pointed as ever, Scott, who's old school personified, called his players out after they started 0-2, after which they won their home opener, beating the Dallas Mavericks.

He hasn't lit them up since, although, judging from the half hour the door to his office remained shut after Sunday's game, a storm front may be moving in.

As a Laker, Scott studied under Pat Riley, the taskmaster's taskmaster, even if Byron didn't realize he was studying at the time, as opposed to surviving.

Compared to Riley's memorable days of rage after the Memorial Day Massacre, when the Boston Celtics routed the Lakers, 148-114, in Game 1 of the 1985 Finals, Scott said his blowup last week was like clearing his throat.

"That Memorial Day Massacre blowup," Scott mused before Sunday's game, "two-hour film session and every time he stopped it, when you made a mistake, he'd just stare at you. Rewind it, play it, look at you again, rewind it again. . . . .

"Then we went to practice like it was training camp. We had two days before the next game, so that made it even worse.

"So we knew Boston was in trouble."

The Lakers came back to win Game 2, and went on to beat the Celtics in six games, ending the curse that went back decades, and turning the franchise's history around.

Of course, aside from Scott, those Lakers had Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, etc.

At their zenith, the Hornets defended and never gave up. Now they're giving up 11 more points a game than they did last season.

As for never being out of it, they've been out of it a lot lately. The Lakers led, 82-58, after three quarters and Paul didn't even play in the fourth.

"It's tough," Paul said. "It's early in the season, but you definitely want to show signs of improvement and stuff like that. This is the toughest thing I have endured in a while, because even my first two years, when I was in Oklahoma [after Hurricane Katrina], we did pretty well and we kept getting better.

"We can only get better. Can't get worse."

The Hornets are still small and they still lack depth but now they play like a small, thin team.

Anyone who knows how to make magic carpets fly, please call them before 2012, when Paul's contract runs out.

"I'm not worried about the other stuff," Paul said. "I'm not OK with losing. That's the thing that irks me now.

"I hate for somebody else to say they beat me, and the way we're losing now, it's not even close. We win by three or four on a given night but when we lose, it's been ugly.

"Anybody got any suggestions? We're open."

OK. Don't ever underestimate the power of prayer.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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