LOS ANGELES — Nearly seven months and 83 games after the Los Angeles Lakers returned from their second straight championship run, they’re still searching for the mental motivation necessary to chase that third straight ring.
That’s not just the opinion of pundits, opposing scouts or furious fans. These Lakers freely acknowledge it after Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets made them look like playoff newbies in their first-round series opener.
“We have to change our disposition as a team,” Lamar Odom said Monday. “We have to get a different energy.”
If a series-opening loss to ragtag New Orleans can’t get their attention, what can? The Lakers will find out in Game 2 on Wednesday night.
Paul and the Hornets played with all the urgency Los Angeles lacked in their 109-100 win Sunday, making few mistakes while beating the Lakers at many of the champs’ strengths. The Lakers couldn’t match the Hornets’ urgency or inventiveness — and they didn’t really appear interested in trying, outside of Kobe Bryant’s 34-point performance while taking more shots (26) than any three of his teammates combined.
“We’re a little frustrated, but it’s a road we’ve been down before,” Odom said. “We can’t lose our minds and get out of control. We have to remember where we are in this process.”
Yes, another luxury of back-to-back titles is the freedom to write off one bad loss on a run that requires 16 victories.
“These things happen,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “It’s not the end of the world. … We probably had a bad day, and they had a good day.”
The Lakers have echoed this theme all season whenever they failed to reach a short-term goal, vowing they would get it together when the games really count. They won 57 regular-season games, the same number as last season, yet lost the majority of their major showcases, including a Christmas Day game against Miami and the home NBA finals rematch with Boston.
Pau Gasol and Bryant both passed on the chance to rehash Game 1 with the media Monday, although Jackson said Bryant felt no lingering effects from his neck-first tumble into the front row shortly before halftime.
The Lakers are probably aware that roughly 78 percent of all NBA teams that lose their playoff opener go on to lose the series. None of the Lakers’ previous 16 championships came after losing a postseason opener, and the club opened each of its five championship runs under Jackson with a win in the first playoff game.
Yet amid all the highfaluting dissections of their motivation, the Lakers also revealed some fundamental flaws in their defensive rotation and communication while Paul shredded them. Jackson kept the Lakers in film study for more than two hours before Monday’s practice.
“We played the game, so we knew how it was going to look on film,” said center Andrew Bynum, who had notably little success discouraging Paul’s drives to the hoop. “It was just a terrible effort on defense from everybody, the whole team.”
New Orleans coach Monty Williams went back to work after his dynamite playoff debut hoping to emphasize the same advantages his Hornets exploited so well in Game 1. After watching the Hornets’ three-turnover performance with surprisingly strong bench contributions in Game 1, Williams hopes almost nothing changes.
“We wanted to take advantage of our speed,” Williams said after the Hornets’ workout at USC’s downtown practice court. “We also have to get stops. You’re talking about one of the better offensive teams in the league. Trying to get those guys to miss is a monumental task. Even when they make a shot, you can’t live in that moment. You’ve got to get the ball out of bounds quickly, get it to your guard and push it. We want to force tempo.”
Paul wasn’t basking in the glow of his 33-point, 14-assist performance in Game 1. He deflected credit for the win onto New Orleans’ big men, the coaching staff and just about anybody except the guard who reminded everybody why they shouldn’t be fooled by the Hornets’ stumbling finish to the regular season or the absence of leading scorer David West.
“I’ve been saying all along, just get us to the playoffs,” said Paul, who averaged a career-low 15.8 points per game during the regular season. “Just get us to the playoffs, and we’ve got a chance. I just tried to have a different intensity yesterday, and hopefully the guys fed off of it.”
Paul’s energy even spread to the Hornets’ bench, frequently a liability during the regular season. New Orleans’ reserves outscored the Lakers’ bench 39-21, adding another dimension to an all-around superb effort by a team with none of the Lakers’ complacency issues.
“We’re not satisfied with what happened,” said New Orleans’ Jarrett Jack, who scored 15 points in his first career playoff game. “When we walked into our locker room, there wasn’t confetti falling from the ceiling or anything, and we had like medals handed to us. We won the game, but you’ve got to win four of them, so we’ve got a big uphill battle.”
NOTES: Hornets C Aaron Gray’s right ankle was in a protective boot after he sprained it late in Game 1. Gray, who scored a season-high 12 points, isn’t sure whether he’ll be ready to play Wednesday. “I’ve got a softball in there, but it’s actually come down a lot,” Gray said. “I’ve got a lot of range of motion back.” … Lakers G Steve Blake returned to practice Monday after missing a week with chicken pox. He’s expected to play Wednesday. “Basketball-wise, I felt good,” said Blake, who remains mystified about how he got the disease. “It’s not like I went up to someone and shook someone’s hand that had spots all over them.”