I've said it many times. In a season in which consistency has been as rare as a four-leaf clover discovered on top of a copy of Superman No. 1, there's been one solid trend for the Lakers. Opponents regarded with contempt on a personal level receive their best efforts, as evidenced by a 3-0 clip against the defending champs. The players on hand, whether Derek Fisher, Ramon Sessions, Brendan Haywood or Delonte West, have changed, but the Lakers' vibe has been metronome-steady. Kobe Bryant might not be available Sunday, and Lamar Odom absolutely won't, but I expect that intensity to be maintained. Particularly in light of Friday's rather promising win over the Nuggets.
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This glum face won't be seen on the Mavericks' sideline anymore.
To discuss the matchup, I had an IM conversation with Jeff Caplan, who covers the Mavs for ESPN Dallas. Below is the transcript.
Andy Kamenetzky: From a psychological standpoint, what does Odom's departure do for Dallas?
Jeff Caplan: The first thing is it removes daily frustration and exasperation from the locker room. His behavior was such that I believe players questioned his commitment, and have for some time. Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle were as patient as possible, believing at some point he would turn things around and contribute. Finally, Cuban saw zero desire emanating from Odom and pulled the plug. The Mavs thrived with an all-for-one mentality last season and now can get back to that.
AK: Even acknowledging Odom's disengagement and poor play, has he been a convenient scapegoat at all for Dallas' underwhelming season?
JC: Absolutely. For evidence that it wasn't just Lamar, just look at Thursday night at Golden State. The Mavs were up 19 in the first half, then allowed the Warriors to cut it to three early in the fourth before turning it on again. That's a staple of this team this year: No lead is safe. That's mostly due to an offense ranking around 20th all year in scoring average and field goal percentage. But I don't think anyone within the organization has said, "It's all Lamar's fault" or "Now that he's gone, we're about to roll." I think there's now just more of a workmanlike mentality, with players going about their business. This is mostly a drama-free locker room led by Dirk Nowitzki, who is unlike any superstar I've ever been around.
The big question is will Shawn Marion have anyone to defend? What's Kobe's status with the shin and is anybody getting worried?
AK: As of this post, Kobe remains day-to-day, and given how he shares the "pain don't hurt" philosophy made famous by a legendary bouncer named Dalton, him sitting is certainly unusual. But I don't sense teammates and the front office are worried. Bryant's making progress by all accounts, and since he's already missed games, I think everyone's determined to take whatever time necessary to avoid a recurrence. Plus, Kobe's entire body is getting well-needed rest, so there's a tangible silver lining. It wouldn't shock me if he sat against Dallas, which means Marion's day checking Devin Ebanks becomes considerably easier.
(UPDATE: As Mike Brown said Saturday, Kobe is unlikely to play against the Mavs.)
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Kobe's taking all the time necessary to heal.
Jason Kidd and Delonte West have recently returned from absences of varying length. How important are they to Dallas' fortunes?
JC: For the Mavs, Kidd is everything. He's my pick as the player who has to be at his best for Dallas to have a chance to defend its title. Although his stats are career lows across the board, he still runs the offense with an efficiency like no other teammate, and the Mavs trust him implicitly to make the right play or hit the big 3-pointer. The question is whether he can stay healthy enough to play at an elite level. He looked good in his first two games back, but Carlisle had to play him 33 minutes against Golden State, and that's high for Kidd. The plan was to ease him in.
As for West, he's big in terms of being a tenacious perimeter defender. When West missed 21 games, Marion had to check point guards and it wore him down to where he had to sit three games with a sore knee. West has also shown an ability to can key jumpers. Those two look to be the starting backcourt, but have actually played only a handful of games together.
So the standings currently look like a Lakers-Mavs playoff rematch in the first round. If that comes to pass, who do you like?
AK: I love the Lakers. Beyond a tendency to play well against teams they dislike, the Lakers match up well against Dallas. Marion definitely makes Kobe work, but everywhere else, the Lakers are either equal or better in a position-by-position matchup. Assuming the Lakers' bench can be reasonably competent, the Mavs are an ideal first-round opponent.
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Can the old man's body hold up for a deep playoff run?
JC: I tend to agree. And one big factor is Ramon Sessions. Mavs fans got an early look at him in Dallas and he was brilliant. How well has he fit in? It seems no one is thinking back to Derek Fisher too much.
AK: Only when Andrew Bynum acts up. (Zing!) All joking aside, Sessions has fit in well, even acknowledging areas in need of improvement. Defensively, he's average at best, and while the chemistry between him and Kobe is improving, it needs to be seamless come playoff time. The biggest downside to Kobe's injury is time missed to further jell with Sessions. But overall, Sessions has been helpful, whether as a source of scoring, speed, or expanded pick-and-roll possibilities. In particular, he and Pau Gasol have developed a nice two-man game.
And finally, prediction?
JC: I'm going to say the Mavs take this one with or without Kobe. This is a desperate Mavs team with a proud core trying to prove it is worthy of defending a title. Give me the Mavs on Sunday and the Lakers in a first-round matchup.
AK: I tend to agree. It's always difficult to beat the same team four times, and potentially without Kobe, even harder.