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NEWS IN: Darvin Ham promised to secures the seventh seed between Lakers and Pelicans

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 3: Head Coach Darvin Ham of the Los Angeles Lakers leads huddle before a preseason game against the Sacramento Kings on October 3, 2022 at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)

Above everything else, the playoffs are about matchups. That gaudy record, those all-stars, the odds, teams can toss them out the window if they run into an opponent who has their number. And for the most part, everyone has and knows the identity of their boogeyman.

It’s unknown where the New Orleans Pelicans’ confidence level was heading into their game on Sunday, but behind a deluge of dunks and bulldozing drives to the cup, the Lakers made sure they sapped it by the time the final buzzer rang.

The bullies from Los Angeles came into the Smoothie King Center seeing red. With three lopsided wins over the Pelicans already this season with an average margin of victory of 25.6 points, the Lakers had memorized the formula for beating New Orleans front and back. The game plan was simple and barbaric. If we were privy to their whiteboard in the locker room, it likely read: Attack, attack, and attack again.

That’s what the Lakers did. With a 68-to-42 slobber knocker of an advantage in points in the paint and yet another double-digit victory, Sunday was the latest reminder that the Lakers are indeed a bad matchup for the Pelicans.

The once-deemed “sleeping giant” of the Western Conference was awoken in their home and bludgeoned to death by a bigger, stronger, behemoth. Their boogeyman was back.

“In that first half, they punched us right in the mouth,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “We know what the deal was. They were the aggressors. When you’re the aggressive team, things go your way. They had us on our heels all game.”

With important playoff seeding on the line, both teams had something to play for in their final game of the regular season. However, only one side approached it with postseason intensity.

That likely will change as the Lakers and Pelicans will face off once again on Tuesday in the play-in with the seventh seed up for grabs. To what extent the outcome differs from their previous head-to-heads likely rests on which team can win the paint battle.

In a good case study of the “styles make fights” adage, both teams’ success this year has been rooted in the restricted area.

For New Orleans, their eighth-ranked defense revolved around shutting off access to the cup and moving everything toward space. They allowed only 31.6% of their opponent’s attempts to come at the rim, which was the 10th-lowest mark in the league. Conversely, they aggressively conceded the 3-point line to opposing teams 41.1% of the time, the second-highest rate in the league. Given their inability to force misses inside — 68.1% shooting allowed — it’s been a sound strategy.

On the other end, the Pelicans slashed their way to the paint often. Behind Brandon Ingram’s slithering ability and Zion Willamson’s brunt force drives, the team had the 10th-highest shot frequency at the rim this year.

For Los Angeles, they followed a similar approach to New Orleans on both ends, albeit more extreme. On offense, the Lakers proved to be the most dangerous interior-centric team in the league. Their 72.6% shooting at the rim this season topped the NBA and only Orlando had a higher percentage of their shots come within four feet.

And thanks to Anthony Davis, the Lakers did a fantastic job sealing off the rim on defense as only 30% of their opponent’s chances this year came at the basket, which was the fifth-stingiest.

Both teams have been at their best when they’ve been able to leverage their physical advantages over their opponent. The issue for the Pelicans is the Lakers are bigger, stronger, and better at the things they typically capitalize on. This has left them looking at an evolved reflection of what they aspire to be whenever they’ve crossed paths.

Sunday’s game highlighted the discrepancies between both squads, specifically by how the Lakers have been able to pummel the paint against a Pelicans’ defense with little answers.

LeBron James orchestrated the Lakers’ interior onslaught by being both selfish and selfless. Individually, the Pelicans’ best defenders proved too slight to slow down the 39-year-old locomotive, especially in the open court.

New Orleans found success with their defense this year when able to set up in the half court. However, they’ve been susceptible to quick hitters when caught off guard as they’ve allowed the ninth-highest transition frequency off live rebounds.

Whether it was part of the scouting report or not, James saw blood in the water whenever the Pelicans were on their heels.

James stayed in attack mode even in the possessions where he didn’t shoot the ball. With 17 assists on the day, he didn’t so much find the cracks in the Pelicans’ defense but, rather, put a sledgehammer through their foundation to create a doorway to the basket for his teammates.

Although James had a big hand in busting the Pelicans’ interior defense, collectively, the Lakers took advantage of their opposition’s strategy all game long.

With the Pelicans throwing different looks at the Lakers’ ball-handlers in the form of ICE-ing screens, hard hedging with their bigs and even going zone, this naturally created pockets of space off the ball that the team exploited.

Because of the Pelicans’ inclination to at least initially show two to the level of the pick, this created movement on the backline as the defender in the opposite corner was forced to crack down to tag Davis whenever he got free.

As a result, his assignment would be left open. And more often than not, that player was Rui Hachimura.

In what has been one of the biggest improvements in his game, Hachimura’s timing and anticipation of his cuts have been vital ingredients that have made him the secret sauce of the starting lineup.

Instead of standing by idly, Hachimura has noticeably been more active as a baseline roamer of late, which has put defenses in a bind. Even when they have been able to recover, the forward is too explosive and efficient around the cup to deter him, something the Pelicans learned firsthand on multiple occasions.

On the season, Hachimura scored 1.46 points per cut possession and had a score frequency of 72.9% according to the league’s Synergy data.

Outside of James and the team’s sharp off-ball execution, the Pelicans also simply ran out of options when it came to guarding Davis.

The team’s starting center, Jonas Valančiūnas, has the girth to battle with Davis down low but is too slow to mirror him on the move.

Quickly realizing this, the Pelicans’ coaching staff decided to go small just three minutes into the game. However, this presented its own set of challenges. What Larry Nance Jr. offers in athleticism, foot speed, and defensive versatility department, he lacks in size and strength.

Because of this, the Lakers’ guards were able to find Davs over the top with lobs in their pick-and-roll game and whenever they missed, he was able to clean up on the offensive glass.

Before leaving the contest due to back spasms, Davis converted 10 of his 12 chances at the rim and pulled down four offensive rebounds. With early reporting suggesting Davis will be available for Tuesday’s game, finding a way to limit his impact down low should be a top priority for the Pelicans.

With another game between the two teams now set, Sunday’s contest ended up being as much of a statement as it was a victory for the Lakers.

They will assuredly attempt to play the role of the bully again, looking to be the aggressor as they have in previous meetings. It will be up to the Pelicans to prove that they can not only take a punch but throw the first haymaker.

New Orleans can not again give up another 68 points on 78% shooting efficiency, nor can they take only 25 shots at the rim. They will also need far more from Willamson, who was neutralized and looked eerily human against James’ defense, scoring just 12 points on 4/13 shooting from the field.

While other factors will, of course, play large roles in ultimately deciding who will play the Nuggets in the first round, it is difficult to avert attention away from the rim given how the season series has fared.

In all four games between these two teams, the Lakers have won the points in the paint battle in each and, in the process, broke the Pelicans’ young spirit while doing so.

Regardless of what’s transpired in the past, beating a team twice on their home floor is never an easy task. But if the Lakers aspire for their chance at slaying their own boogeyman that resides in Denver, the path runs and will be decided in the trenches of New Orleans once again.

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