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Lakers vs. Hornets, Game 4: What to watch

Little by little, the Lakers are looking more like a team in it to win it for the third consecutive time. In Game 2, their defense, commitment and energy resurfaced, making up for an offense failing to fire on all cylinders. In Game 3, there was terrific play on both sides of the ball as the Lakers controlled the action from start to finish. They're not quite in championship form yet, but certainly more so than just a week ago.

Game 4 offers the chance for the reigning champs to, for all intents and purposes, end this series. (Yes, 3-1 comebacks can happen, as we learned against Phoenix in 2006, but these Lakers aren't those Lakers and these Hornets aren't those Suns.) Can the Lakers avoid a split and a guaranteed return to the Big Easy? Here are a few items that could shape the answer.

Did Game 3 truly mark the return of Pau Gasol?

With 9.5 seconds remaining in the third quarter of Game 3, Pau Gasol offered up his own version of the age-old question, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?"

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Will Pau Gasol remain a force to be reckoned with?

After Andrew Bynum came up short on a jump hook, Gasol collected the offensive rebound, collected his own missed putback attempt, then posterized D.J. Mbenga on the third-chance possession. Only one problem: The dunk was waived off because of earlier contact. Gasol pleaded his case to Joey Crawford, then smiled and tugged on the net before swishing two free throws.

This sequence represented Gasol at his most physically ferocious during a curiously tepid series, but it ultimately was erased from the record books.

If a struggling four-time All-Star jams in the face of an ex-Laker, but two points aren't added to the scoreboard, does it still signal a return to form?

Fingers crossed ... yes.

The first half of Game 3 provided glimpses of Gasol getting his groove back. Terrific passes, whether on give-and-go sequences or wraparound dishes to set up Bynum for an uncontested dunk. A baseline jumper dropping over Aaron Gray. Rebounds tapped around to secure possessions. Still, it was more of a "pleasingly comfortable" mode, as opposed to a "dominant" mode.

The second half, and in particular, the fourth quarter, saw Gasol truly resembling Gasol again. Thirteen second-half points over the final 24 minutes, with seven coming in the fourth quarter. He also set up Steve Blake for a critical 3-pointer and even drilled one of his own. Whether a matter of overcoming a nasty cold, figuring out the Hornets' defense or simply getting out of his own head, Pau can feel a legitimate sense of momentum heading into Game 4.

Should Gasol capitalize on that roll, he, his teammates and the entire Laker Nation can probably feel confident about finally exhaling.

Can the Lakers build another early lead?

Finishing the first quarter of Game 3 up 30-23 was consequential for the Lakers on several fronts. For starters, it marked the first time in this series the Lakers were ahead after the opening 12 minutes. Also, the Lakers shot 68.4 percent from the field during that frame. Such gaudy numbers can't be sustained against any NBA squad, much less one with New Orleans' defensive credentials, but it did lay the foundation for a quality 49 percent performance on the evening. For a team whose offense has come and gone throughout April, this was a welcome sight.

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More than likely, Marco Belinelli missed this shot.

And perhaps most importantly, it demonstrated what I suspect is an ugly truth about the New Orleans: Falling behind in a game could be fatal.

The Hornets averaged a scant 94.9 points per game on the season, nearly four points higher than their postseason tally. And this isn't simply a matter of playing at the second slowest pace in the NBA, which limits their possessions and, by turn, their output. The Hornets' offensive efficiency (103.9) ranked just 19th in the NBA. Even with Chris Paul quarterbacking the action, "the big easy" doesn't often describe the effort required for N'Awlins to generate points.

Further complicating matters, Emeka Okafor, Jarrett Jack and an ice-cold Marco Belinelli are all being held below their season averages. Trevor Ariza has bumped his numbers, but his 13 points have required 13 shots. Like Clark Griswold said after jumping the family truckster 50 yards, nothing to be proud of. The Lakers have also grown increasingly adept at making CP3 either (mostly) a scorer or (occasionally) a playmaker, but not both, which severely handcuffs the Hornets' production.

Assuming the Lakers score at their usual clip, a fight will be in order for the Hornets to keep pace. Making up ground, however, could be too much, particularly if forced to battle upstream over the majority of a game.

Will the Hornets start feeling pressure?

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Can Chris Paul instill confidence in Okafor and other playoff-inexperienced teammates?

The Hornets stunned the world by taking a 1-0 series lead in what was supposed to be the Lakers' show. However, the perceived natural order has been steadily re-established. Even for a team heavy on self-belief, being down 2-1 to the two-time defending champs can't be a comfortable feeling. For starters, the Hornets have undergone a massive face-lift since last season, and while the moves by GM Dell Demps were obviously good ones, this incarnation has no postseason track record as a unit. And when you further consider the individual postseason experience -- or lack thereof -- it's fair to wonder if falling behind the 8-ball could be a daunting mental challenge.

Among those expected to earn time, Belinelli, Okafor and Jack are making their first appearances in the playoffs. Aaron Gray entered this series with nine minutes of playoff burn under his belt. Jason Smith was a member of the Sixers' one series run in 2008, but otherwise, nothing. Willie Green has played a few series with the Sixers, but never beyond Round 1.

This leaves Ariza, Carl Landry and Paul as notable Hornets with firsthand accounts of defeating an opponent in the playoffs. On a perhaps related note, these are also the three Hornets leading the team in scoring, plus general aggressiveness and confidence. The 7-seeds entered this series playing free and loose, like a team with nothing to lose. But that's also an easier mindset to maintain before the exit perhaps feels increasingly like their destiny.