Bradley Handwerger / WWLTV.com Sports Writer
-- OPINION --
NEW ORLEANS -- For much of the season, many have questioned what was wrong with Chris Paul, New Orleans’ All-Star point guard and team leader.
He wasn’t scoring as much. He wasn’t as quick as before. He wasn’t himself.
Turns out, Paul only needed the playoffs to wake him up from a near season-long slumber.
Behind an inspired Paul, the seventh-seeded Hornets defeated the No. 2-seed Lakers 109-100 in Los Angeles on Sunday, sending an opening salvo in a series no one expected New Orleans to have a chance to compete in.
Paul had 33 points, 14 assists, seven rebounds and four steals in leading the Hornets to the weekend’s most improbable upset as the NBA playoffs opened up.
“When he’s fresh, nobody can stay in front of him,” Hornets coach Monty Williams said during his post-game interview on NBA TV.
Of course, it helps to be on the same page as your floor leader and Williams is the first to admit this.
“Sometimes I tend to mess with the game by trying to run too many basketball sets when sometimes I just need to give him the ball and let him go to work,” Williams said. “(Paul) and I, we were on the same page tonight when it comes to calling plays.”
Down the stretch, when the game mattered most and the Lakers appeared within striking distance of taking over the game, Paul instead took it over himself.
Up only 90-87 with five-plus minutes to play, Paul simply went nuts. He nailed an 18- and 20-footer on back-to-back possessions, forcing L.A. to call timeout.
When the Lakers pulled back to within 94-90, Paul got aggressive and culled fouls, first on Derek Fisher with 3:10 to play, then on Fisher with 1:16 to go. In between he sank another 17-footer.
The Hornets never led by fewer than nine points from there on out.
Paul finished with 17 points in the fourth quarter and was 9 of 10 from the free-throw line.
“Tonight, the fourth quarter just called for me to be more aggressive,” Paul said. “A lot of times people are looking for me to pass and that opens up my shot.”
And yet, as is the case most times when a team that’s not supposed to win in the playoffs does, it has as much to do with everyone else as it does with your star.
Sunday afternoon was no different.
The Hornets, despite a size disparity, outscored the Lakers 52-34 in the paint. The New Orleans bench outscored Los Angeles’ 39-21. And the Hornets forced 13 turnovers while turning it over just three times.
With center Emeka Okafor in foul trouble, Aaron Gray came off the bench to contribute solid minutes and scored 12 points on 5 of 5 shooting before leaving with what Williams called a mild ankle sprain.
Guard Jarrett Jack, in his first playoff game ever, scored 15 points on 5 of 6 shooting.
Forward Carl Landry scored 17 points and picked up five rebounds and showed a quick burst that the Lakers’ big men couldn’t keep up with.
“I’m glad our guys came to fight,” Williams said. “That was our mantra for the week. We said we had to be strong and courageous no matter what.”
Nevertheless, it’s only one game, albeit a huge win in a series no one thought the Hornets would have a chance in. Not with the Lakers coming in as the two-time defending champs and not with Los Angeles sweeping the regular season series.
“I’m sure they’re going to make some (changes),” Williams said. “They’re the world champs.”
But if Paul can play like he did Sunday, a win in Game 2 isn’t unthinkable.
Playoffs cement legends.
Paul’s would grow by leaps and bounds.