A five-point preview of the Mavericks-Lakers series from a Los Angeles perspective:
Defense. Yes, the Lakers' collective size can be imposing, but only when they're committed towards maximizing it, which isn't always the case. And yes, that Kobe Bryant fella is very handy to have around and the Mavs aren't overflowing with options to guard him, but his ankle may still be problematic and there will inevitably be games where shots don't fall.
But at the end of the day, the Lakers can -- and often do -- count on their defense when all else fails. Andrew Bynum patrols the lane like no other big not named "Dwight." Ron Artest is uniquely capable of changing the tenor of games with his defense. Kobe, when dialed in, is a viciously competitive defender. Lamar Odom's (and to a lesser degree, Pau Gasol's) D is very underrated. Steve Blake and Matt Barnes can be pests. And Derek Fisher finds way to have a couple of great defensive games each series.
These individuals often forge a smothering collective, and the Lakers ultimately hang their hats on this asset.
Outside shooting. The Lakers were a dismal 37.5 percent on shots 16-23 feet out (26th-NBA), and tied for 17th behind the arc (35.2 percent). They've been better in the playoffs from downtown (36.7 percent), but that's hardly shooting the lights out. In the meantime, the Mavs play a lot of zone, which specifically dares opponents to launch long jumpers. The Lakers typically handle this temptation like Lindsay Lohan at an open bar.
Do you see where I'm going with this?
MOST IMPORTANT MATCHUP
The benches. Bynum, Gasol and Odom can hold their own against Tyson Chandler and Dirk. Jason Kidd's numbers may end up a little more prolific, but him vs. Fisher is more or less a wash. Artest had a terrific series against New Orleans and should continue exploiting his size against Dallas, particularly if Shawn Marion has to defend Kobe (who has traditionally roasted Dallas).
However, with the starters taking a breather, things might get hairy.
Talent-wise, the best player among reserves on either team is Odom. However, Jason Terry is the best pure scorer among subs, and the Mavs are probably more talented overall. Barnes (dealing with knee issues) Blake and Shannon Brown have been inconsistent all season, which has bled into the playoffs. They finished the Hornets series on a strong note, so perhaps momentum can carry into the semis. Unfortunately, they can likely be counted on occasionally undo whatever leads the starters build.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Pau Gasol spent much of the Hornets series as the designated whipping boy and unfortunately, the criticism was largely warranted. Gasol allowed Emeka Okafor, Carl Landry and Aaron Gray to push him off spots, and instead of putting the ball on the floor and forcing them to check him, Pau perpetually settled for jumpers. Throw in the spotty rebounding and erratic defense, and El Spaniard's first four games were largely miserable.
Of course, Games 5 and 6 were quality efforts and Pau won't likely encounter nearly the same physicality against Dallas/Dirk. Were I betting man, I'd lay cash on a good series. Still, it's been Pau's most inconsistent season as a Laker and the dips have surfaced at inexplicable times. For the time being, I think it's safe to say all eyes remain fixed in his direction.
TO WIN THE SERIES, LAKERS MUST ...
Be themselves, to be honest. I don't mean this to sound dismissive towards the Mavericks, without question a quality team. My official prediction is "Lakers in 6," but my second choice would be "7" over "5." They could absolutely test the Lakers. But at the end of the day, the Lakers are the better, bigger, more experienced team and Dallas matches up badly against them. Assuming the Lakers play to their strengths, unless Dirk has an epic series, I don't see the Mavs pulling the upset, especially without home court advantage.