NEW ORLEANS, La. — And just like that, the Lakers got their groove back.
After beginning this four-game road trip with two sour, discordant notes in losses to the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic, then righting themselves statistically, but not artistically in Monday’s win over the Memphis Grizzlies, the Lakers turned in their most impressive performance in several weeks Tuesday night, beating the New Orleans Hornets 100-87 at New Orleans Arena.
“I liked the way we came out of this road trip,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “I didn’t like the way we started it.”
All of which means Thursday’s long-anticipated Christmas Day showdown against the Boston Celtics can proceed, as hyped, without any cautionary notes.
“It’s big that we got a little bit of a rhythm back to get ready for the showdown against them (Boston),” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “They are playing phenomenal basketball right now. It’ll be fun to match up with a team like that.”
How much does the outcome of Thursday’s game matter, though?
“The only stock we put in it is to see where we stand, right at this moment,” Bryant said. “It’s like a balance sheet. …The Finals is the ultimate revenge.”
So far on the balance sheet this season in New Orleans, the Lakers (23-5) are well into the black.
Bryant led Los Angeles with 26 points, six rebounds and four assists. Pau Gasol had 20 points and seven rebounds on 8-of-10 shooting.
Tuesday’s victory was the Lakers’ second in as many trips to the Crescent City, and in both wins, the Lakers built 21-point leads.
The first game though, back on November 12, the Lakers nearly found a way to fritter it away, needing a tough 3-pointer from Bryant with just over a minute remaining to squelch a spirited comeback from the Hornets.
For a few moments in the second half of Tuesday’s game, it appeared New Orleans (16-8) might be able to pull exactly the same trick. Rasual Butler, Chris Paul and Morris Peterson combined to hit five 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 11 points on two separate occasions, but the Lakers clamped down on defense to keep them at bay.
“Two of our worst games have been against this team,” Hornets coach Byron Scott said. “It could be us. It could be them. It could be both.”
On both occasions, the Lakers have played superior defense. The first game they held New Orleans to 44.7 percent shooting from the floor. Tuesday they were even better, allowing the Hornets to shoot just 41.6 percent.
In the first half, when they built a 56-37 lead, the Lakers were downright stingy, holding the previously hot Hornets to just 37.5 percent shooting. Before Tuesday’s game, New Orleans had won 11 of its last 13 games and six in a row at home.
“We just tried to make it hard for them, use our length as well as our quickness,” said forward Lamar Odom, who played an energetic 31 minutes, finishing with eight points, eight rebounds, five assists and a steal.
That lockdown defense seemed to get under the Hornets skin, making the atmosphere inside the arena contentious and loud. Tyson Chandler, Butler and James Posey were assessed technical fouls.
“We got so emotionally involved in the game that we stopped playing against the Lakers and started moaning and groaning about every call,” Scott said. “As a young group, we can’t get that emotionally involved in the game.”
Paul led the Hornets with 17 points, 10 assists and six steals. Butler added 17 points, including thee, 3-pointers. Peterson had 16 points off the bench. Power forward David West was held to jut 13 points on 5-for-15 shooting.
New Orleans was without small forward Peja Stojakovic, who sat out his third straight game with back spasms.