Flip over to ESPN.com's official Lakers vs. Mavs page and one thing quickly pops out: 12 basketball writers forecast the series, and all 12 pick the Lakers. Four in five games, five in six, and three in seven.
Not a huge surprise. Dallas is a perennial playoff disappointment, and despite polishing off a very solid Portland squad in six games, few believe they have the requisite combination of talent and intestinal fortitude to knock off L.A. Particularly after a late season swoon costing them a chance to host this round instead of opening things up at Staples, and when all the matchups are taken into account. As it is in every series against the Lakers, the Mavs have the basic questions to answer about who guards Kobe Bryant or how to deal with L.A.'s length. On paper, at least, Dallas is not quite as equipped to exploit weaknesses of the Lakers as other teams in the Western Conference.
I won't rock the boat, because I'm picking the Lakers, too. But count me among those expecting a longer series. Dallas is a balanced team with depth, well coached and highly motivated. They'll be a tough out.
Season Series: Lakers, 2-1.
The final two games will be the ones receiving the most attention when people look back at the season series, particularly the March 31st game in which the Lakers outscored Dallas 56-31 in the second half and five players were ejected thanks to a Jason Terry shove on Steve Blake. Both were important games rife with playoff implications, and for the Lakers to win both probably means something. Still, reading too much into either, especially the blowout, is a mistake. The score didn't reflect it at the end, but through the first 24 minutes the Lakers had only a three-point lead, and the game felt similar to the very competitive one played a couple weeks earlier in Dallas. The second half constituted a total unraveling of the Mavericks, not something likely- or less likely, at least- to happen in the postseason.
Bottom line, relying too much on regular season results can be a very poor diagnostic for the playoffs.
Questions and Ponderables:
Zone Defense. The Mavs play a ton of it, and with a great deal of success and, unlike many other squads, a great deal of pride. Rick Carlisle has used it to take advantage of their frontcourt length and protect his smaller lineup, too, all with positive results. Dallas finished the season just behind the Lakers in defensive efficiency (102.3 points allowed per 100 possessions), and while they don't dominate in any particular statistical category, the Mavs are a top 10 bunch in opponent's field goal percentage, three point percentage, free throws allowed, and defensive rebounding percentage. The Lakers, a mediocre jump shooting team often too easily seduced into taking them, will need to show discipline offensively in attacking it.
Secondary Scoring. The Lakers have, from time to time and more than most, had success defending Dirk Nowitzki. Between Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, L.A. is uniquely equipped to throw a great deal of mobility and skill at the big German on the defensive side, players also talented enough to make him work at the other end. Still, Nowitzki is a lot like Kobe Bryant- difficult to stop completely, and with a repertoire of shots where the question isn't whether he can get it off, just how well it is contested. So if the two of them cancel each other out, who wins the battle of secondary scoring? Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and Shawn Marion for Dallas? Can Tyson Chandler be more than a defensive factor? How about Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom for L.A.? Does Ron Artest keep his momentum from Round 1?
Caron Butler. Reports he's been cleared for contact drills were premature, but there seems to be a chance he could be back at some point in this series. After such a long layoff- Butler underwent surgery to repair a torn knee ligament on January 1- it's hard to believe he could make a real impact. Still, could ten minutes a game make a difference?
Psychology. The Mavs stared down a few demons in the first round. At different points throughout the series the Blazers ate up big deficits, including in Game 4 when in one of the most remarkable performances in recent postseason history Brandon Roy spearheaded an improbable fourth quarter charge (or, from a Mavs fan's perspective, took advantage of a monumental collapse) to tie the series at two. In Game 5, plenty of people expected Dallas to collapse, but they played a great game. Then Thursday, they went into the Rose Garden- no picnic for visiting teams- and closed out Portland. How much does simply getting through the first round change the psychological mojo of the Mavs?
Phil Jackson vs. Mark Cuban. Anyone want to set the line on who gets more fines through the series? And for how much, in total?
At the very least, that last pairing should provide some great copy for people like me. We'll obviously bring you plenty more on this series between now and Monday's Game 1. Should be entertaining, but ultimately the better team is the Lakers, and in over a seven game series in the NBA, the better team almost always wins.