Lakers forward Matt Barnes has his layup challenged by Hornets guard Xavier… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
Some things to watch for when the Lakers (35-22) visit the New Orleans Hornets (15-41) Monday at New Orleans Arena.
1. The Lakers will be without Kobe Bryant. For the second consecutive game, Bryant will sit on the bench because of a sore left shin. Long term, it's better that Bryant actually rests. There's no need to force him to play since it would make his injuries worse only nine games before the playoffs. With Bryant remaining fourth in the league in minutes played (38.4), this actually gives him an opportunity to regain some lost energy. After all, Coach Mike Brown has remained reluctant to give Bryant that luxury during normal circumstances.
Short term, though, the Lakers will struggle without Bryant. He had averaged 30.8 points on 56.6% shooting in the past four games this month. He provided late-game heroics last week against New Orleans and New Jersey, two sloppy affairs that easily could've ended in the loss column. And his presence alone makes it easier for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to find looks in the post, while Ramon Sessions often drives uncontested into the lane.
2. The Lakers defense remains an issue. Bryant sure could've bailed the Lakers out in their 125-105 loss Saturday against the Phoenix Suns. But his absence wouldn't have been an issue had the Lakers actually defended. After all, the Lakers had no problems scoring. Bynum's 10-of-27 clip and a horrific bench aside, Pau Gasol (30 points), Metta World Peace (19 points), Devin Ebanks (12 points) and Ramon Sessions (11 points) all tallied double figures. The Lakers had trouble defending, though, allowing an opponent to crack the 100-point barrier mark in seven of their past nine games.
The Lakers may have a better time statistically against New Orleans, particularly since they're more than week removed from holding the Hornets to 85 points on 42.4% shooting. Since New Orleans remains second-to-last in the NBA scoring (88.15) and 14th in field-goal percentage (44.9%), the Lakers can't equate in the statistics in this game to their actual defensive effort. They remain fundamentally flawed in stopping teams in transition since they're old and slow. They've also lacked the consistent focus they need in half-court sets, including switching out on pick-and-rolls and helping from the weakside. The Lakers need to use tonight's game as a clinic to return back to those fundamental principles.
3. Will the Lakers' focus be there? The Lakers' three-point win last week against New Orleans represented everything wrong about the team's attitude. They barely squeaked by the Western Conference's worst team, which fielded an eight-man roster because of numerous injuries. They blew a double-digit first-quarter lead. And then Brown afterwards praised his players for showing grit by making a fourth-quarter comeback.
The Lakers need to stop with this mentality. They face a tough schedule this week against San Antonio, Denver and Dallas, all teams they could meet in the playoffs. They need to treat tonight's game as an extended practice where they prepare for those games rather than just an annoyance. Of course, Laker fans have been saying this like harping parents for the past month. But the Lakers still don't listen.
4. How will Devin Ebanks do in Bryant's place? Ebanks will likely get the starting nod in place of Bryant, and he showed some signs against Phoenix that he'll actually provide something. He scored a season-high 12 points on six-of-11 shooting, hustled for four offensive rebounds and further reminded the Lakers of his potential and athleticism once he actually receives playing time. It's unlikely he'll get much burn once Bryant returns. So he may as well make the best of his time on the court now.
5. Can Steve Blake ever return to full form? With exception to a few three-pointers and organized sets here or there, Blake's play has been downright awful. In the past five games, he's averaged 4 points on 31.3% shooting, attempted 16 shots and has had six turnovers. Blake's remained tentative with both shot and running the offense. He doesn't throw the crispest entry passes. And he's hardly done much as an on-ball defender. Clearly, whatever confidence Blake's had has eaten away at him. Unless he somehow overcomes that insecurity, the Lakers' bench will seriously suffer.
Kobe Bryant to miss game against New Orleans
Lakers-Hornets matchup: Five things to look for