By the time a playoff series reaches Game 6, few secrets remain. Coaches have some set plays left in the tool box, generally saved for use out of timeouts or sideline/baseline restarts, but while important and potentially influential, those are single moments. One possession in a game with well over a hundred. As for big picture stuff, the options are more limited. Phil Jackson won't make sweeping rotation changes. Tonight won't be the one where Monty Williams busts out his trump card, using D.J. Mbenga, with heretofore unknown ball handling skills honed through top secret late night workouts at the Hornets' facility, as a second point guard of massive proportions.
(Though I wish that one was possible, because it would be awesome.)
There are adjustments here and there, but the formulas for each team are pretty clear. If the Lakers can successfully press their advantage in the post and control the glass, they'll win. If they can turn Chris Paul into a passer or a scorer, but keep him from doing both at the same time, they'll likely win. If New Orleans gets big performances from their bench and other secondary performers, they have a chance. If they can't force the Lakers into turnovers and earn some easy points on the move, it'll be tough sledding.
With that in mind, here are five reasons the Lakers are likely to close out the series Thursday night in Game 6...
1. History. The Lakers, for all their periodic lapses in execution and/or focus, have a near-pristine track record in games like this. Two years ago, they went into Denver and finished off in a highly charged Western Conference Finals (the series known by Nuggets fans as "The One Where We Couldn't Inbound the Ball") in Game 6. Those Lakers went on to win the title in a Game 5 at Amway Arena in Orlando. Last season, L.A. polished off all three of its W.C. playoff series on the road, eliminating Oklahoma City, Utah, and Phoenix in their respective buildings.
Past performance doesn't guarantee future returns, and none of this means they'll win in a walk (last season, the Lakers were one Pau Gasol putback from a Game 7 vs. the Thunder), but save Game 6 against Houston in '09, the Lakers have a shown themselves a very solid bet in closeout games away from Staples Center.
2. Popeye Gasol. Early in Game 5, it appeared Gasol finally had enough of Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor sticking body parts- particularly legs and knees- in places etiquette (and basketball rules) say they shouldn't go. Instead of again tolerating it, Gasol went (for him), a little Popeye. It was all he could stands, and he couldn't stands no more. "You have to play through it, and you have to fight back. You're gonna get bumped, and pushed and shoved. You have to push and shove back," he said. "I established myself better. I was able to absorb and deliver contact throughout the game better [than the first four games]."
Gasol still operated within the offense, waiting patiently to read the defense, feel out double teams, and make decision- shoot or pass- demanded by the play, but he was also aggressive, put the ball on the floor and created far more forward motion than in Games 1-4. Tuesday was easily his most consistent effort over 48 minutes, and having slowly built towards it following an awful series opener, I'm less inclined to think he'll backslide.
3. Unfair Demands. The formula established by the Hornets to win games isn't exactly the most reliable or realistic. Basically, if Chris Paul has a superhuman night, as he did in Game 1 (33 points on 11-of-18 shooting, 14 assists, seven boards, four steals) and Game 4 (27/13/15), New Orleans has a chance. If, as it was in Game 5 (20 points, 12 assists), Paul is merely really good, the Hornets are in trouble.
Even his dominant games, some of the best stat lines a point guard has posted in playoff history, weren't enough to push New Orleans to comfortable wins. "Go be a basketball god, Chris" isn't a sustainable strategy, but for Williams it is unfortunately a necessity. The talent disparity between the squads is otherwise too big.
4. Kobe Bryant. On the other side of things, the Lakers don't need anything particularly spectacular from their star to close things out. Kobe's turn-back-the-clock dunk over Okafor near the end of the second quarter- comically undersold by ESPN's play-by-play as a "two point shot"- the seminal moment from Tuesday's win. But though years from now it'll likely be seen as the moment swinging the game, the series, and depending on how things finish for L.A., the entire postseason, in fact it was the first three minutes of the quarter swinging the game for the Lakers. With Bryant on the bench, the reserves turned a nine point deficit into a one point lead, completely changing the tenor of the evening.
Bryant's performance in the second quarter, not just the dunk but the driving layups and more, were special, and absolutely served as a driving force for the Lakers into the half and through the final 24 minutes. Still, the dunk wasn't quite the fulcrum it was made to be Wednesday morning.
This is a good thing for the Lakers. Kobe only took three shots in the second half (one being his other spectacular dunk, a lefty finish around Landry), and again the Lakers were able to put distance between themselves and the Hornets at the top of the fourth, with Bryant on the bench. While New Orleans has badly needed monster performances from Paul, the Lakers have won three games without Kobe hoisting the team on his back and carrying them to victory.
But despite his injured left foot and ankle, Wednesday afternoon Jackson said he'd be comfortable pushing Bryant's minutes higher in an effort to avoid a Game 7 and polish off the Hornets. Kobe himself understands the value of an extra day or two to rest before the next round.
Tuesday night, Kobe was spectacularly good for a relatively short burst. Indications are, if needed, he could sustain something equally influential over a larger portion of the game.
5. They Owe Phil Jackson. The man doesn't like New Orleans. Never has, never will. No city has found itself on the wrong end of Jackson's famous habit of tweaking NBA cities more than The Big Easy. (Update: As pointed out in the comments, New Orleans should be second on the list, behind Sacramento.) The Lakers, made him return one more time. Least they can do is win, right?