Los Angeles Lakers: Tyson Chandler
No question, some nerves were settled by the debut of Dwight Howard, whose mere presence provided glimpses of the high ceiling possessed by these Lakers. But as with any player returning from injury, there's always fear of setbacks. And in a game in which Steve Nash and Metta World Peace also suffered injuries (a sore ankle and a dislocated right middle finger, respectively), those concerns are compounded.
Well, so far so good.
Howard told reporters of notable soreness, but those aches are a part of the process. The center was told his body would react this way, and treatment was part of today's agenda. In other words, nothing out of the ordinary. For that matter, Nash and MWP practiced -- albeit in a session with no heavy contact -- and neither is expected to miss any games. The same can be said for Kobe Bryant, who skipped today's workout with a strained right foot. The injury took place during Sunday’s loss to the Sacramento Kings, but nobody seemed particularly nervous about an extended absence. Mike Brown confirmed that Jordan Hill is close to a return.
The benefits to having all hands on deck extend beyond just the roster's collective strength. It allows Brown to finally develop an informed opinion for a desired rotation. Between the third-stringers he's been forced to give obligatory looks and some key players being absent, the coach hasn't been able to utilize players as envisioned. And the results have been obvious, especially with the reserves on the floor.
To prepare for the rematch, Jeff Caplan, who covers the Mavericks for ESPN Dallas, and I had a conversation breaking down both teams. Below is the transcript.
Shawn Marion has been a big part of the Mavs' defensive makeup.
Jeff Caplan: Defense. Believe it or not this a defense-first outfit. They've really absorbed Rick Carlisle's "system" and no matter who is out with injuries and who is playing, the offense might dip, but the defense has been consistently good. The Mavs are first in opponent field goal percentage, fourth in scoring defense and, before Sunday's loss at New York, top six in defending points in the paint.
AK: And all without Tyson Chandler. Was the fret over his absence overwrought?
JC: I don't think we'll really know until the playoffs. Brendan Haywood has played well and Carlisle is really using three centers with Ian Mahinmi and Brandan Wright. Mahinmi has gone south lately while Wright has shown promise. However, Chandler brought so much emotion and fire, both on the court and in the locker room, and that's a quality this team just didn't have in years past. So, yes, Chandler's absence has been overblown because the Mavs have surprisingly gotten good performances from their centers and the defense overall has been very good. But in the heat of the playoffs, the Mavs might miss Chandler's overall package.
AK: Is safe to assume Dirk is back?
JC: He certainly is getting there. He had a terrific stretch of six games or so, then his shooting tailed off again ... and now he's shooting lights out.
Kobe called out management after yet another road loss at Phoenix on Sunday. What is the chemistry like on this team? You get the sense that Kobe is unhappy.
AK: If Kobe's not truly "unhappy," he's definitely "unhappy-adjacent." As for chemistry, I think guys get along, but on the court and mentally, there's much to be desired. They're struggling to score, which turns basketball into a grind-it-out chore and often a joyless drag. It also doesn't help that, in my opinion, the entire team is waiting for a trade to happen. There's a collective vibe of expected disbandment, which doesn't help in terms of jelling. I get the feeling guys are having a hard time buying into the idea of growing as a group.
The Lakers are coming off a quality OT win in Boston, which in theory creates the chance for a 4-2 Grammy roadie. The trek concludes in Toronto against a shoddy Raptors crew after a trip to meet a Knicks team that is missing superstars Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, who weren't exactly laying a winning foundation, anyway. Even acknowledging their three-game winning streak, the shorthanded hosts should play the role of carcasses to the purple and gold vultures, right?
Well, that's exactly what was expected from a recent game in Milwaukee with Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson sidelined. For those with short memories, that emerged an embarrassing Lakers loss. In other words, this game may be imminently winnable, but the Lakers won't be awarded a W by default. They gotta play the game.
For some perspective on the Knicks, we talked to Jared Zwerling, who covers the team for ESPN New York. Here are his thoughts on five questions.
Land O' Lakers: Jeremy Lin has been huge during this recent surge. What in particular does he provide that the Knicks were lacking?
Linsanity is taking over New York!
Beyond his mental makeup, Lin's pick-and-roll game has been exquisite. He maneuvers well around screens, is patient and even has the dribbling ability to split double-teams like a Dwyane Wade. His standout pick-and-roll game has enabled Tyson Chandler more opportunities at the basket and the Knicks' shooters more open looks from downtown. When Lin is on the court, the Knicks are scoring more points in the paint and shooting a higher percentage.
For perspective on the defending champs, I recorded a podKast with Tim MacMahon, who covers the team for ESPN Dallas. The topics discussed included the presence of Delonte West, the absence of Tyson Chandler and the team's prospect for repeating as champs. You can hear the entire show by clicking here.
It has not been easy for Odom in Dallas so far.
But of course, from a Lakers fan's perspective, there's no talking point more intriguing than Lamar Odom now in Dallas. His exit was abrupt and controversial, and since arriving in Big D, LO's adjustment on and off the court has been a work in slow progress. Considering the incredible 2010-11 campaign, numbers like 6.8 ppg, 5 rebounds and a PER of 7.44 are pretty shocking. Below are some excerpts from MacMahon about Odom's transition.
MacMahon, on why Odom has struggled in Dallas:
"He's out of shape. He's out of sorts. And he's completely out of sync with what's going on here. He came in in poor conditioning. The primary goal is to get him in shape. He's not playing many minutes because he's not in good enough shape to do so, and the minutes he is playing, he's usually not playing very well. They've got to get him up to speed in the Mavericks' system and then a lot of this, mentally, he just has to come join the party here in Dallas. He obviously took it extremely hard that the Lakers wanted to trade him in the Chris Paul deal, and [when] that fell apart, he pretty much demanded to be traded. Now that that happened, he has to deal with it.
He also had an extremely difficult offseason from a personal perspective. He had a cousin that was murdered. He was in a car where there was an accident. He wasn't driving, but a young man was killed, who wasn't in that car, but was killed in that accident. So he's dealing with a lot of very difficult off-the-floor emotional baggage. He hasn't fit in with his new team and a lot of that is his own fault and some of it's situations that are out of his control."
MacMahon, on Odom's comments to Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix that he's not "prepared to play" and that his game isn't adapting the way he thought it would:
"Really, I think he has to accept the fact that it's a new situation and he has to completely invest himself emotionally. That and his conditioning are the two main things. They don't want to run a bunch of set plays. They want to play a flow type of offense that he theoretically should fit in very well, but he doesn't know what he's doing on the defensive end of the floor. If you're not getting stops, it's hard to get into a flow type of offense, and that's part of the problem.
But what I really think, for the most part, he has to get into shape, and deal with the fact that he's in Dallas now. This is a team that obviously has a chance to contend. It won the championship last year. Stop moping around, start focusing on not what happened in the past, and the opportunity he has in front of him. I think he'd be surprised at how well he might fit in."
MacMahon, on whether there have been signs of that happening
"The one thing you hear is that he has a good attitude in terms of he's on his own conditioning program. They've got him running extra sprints, doing extra conditioning after practices, after shootarounds. ... But his body language on the floor is just awful. He looks like a guy who doesn't want to be here, who doesn't want much part of what's going on. They like the work ethic, but everything else really needs to improve and improve quickly."
After three consecutive games, plus a day off to recharge, the Lakers are back at it Thursday night against the Knicks. The purple and gold will try to even their record against a New York squad on the back end of a back-to-back, which began with a loss to the Warriors. For a better look at Thursday's opponent, I tracked down Jared Zwerling (ESPN New York) for some insight.
(Also, here are my responses to Jared regarding the Lakers.)
Andy Kamenetzky: Small sample size acknowledged, but do you get a sense Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire have a better sense of how to play with each other? How does the dynamic work, with both needing the ball?
Jared Zwerling: By playing with each other, do you mean being on the same court together, because that's where the similarity starts and ends, for now. At this point, the Knicks are more stationary than what's sold at Kinko's. With Chauncey Billups gone, Mike D'Antoni has been using Anthony as his point-forward, like K.C. Jones made Larry Bird on his 1980s Celtics championship teams. That has gotten Knicks fans excited, but the team has shied away from its trademark pick-and-roll, which is a main component of D'Antoni's offense. That's mostly due to a brand-new team still adjusting and not in rhythm yet. When they do run it, it's been mostly Anthony and Tyson Chandler playing the two-man game, with Amare Stoudemire positioned on the weak side for the jump shot, or even the 3-pointer, which he's been knocking down.
Melo and Amare are still an experiment in chemistry.
D'Antoni has Chandler mostly setting screens because of his 7-foot-1 size and long arms, so there's better spacing and ball movement, and his two superstar scorers can get more open on separate sides of the court. But the offense is not there yet. The majority of the time Anthony or Stoudemire have the ball in their hands, they're going iso on their respective defender. Anthony is more of the ball-stopper because his game is centered around his patented face-up quick jump shot from midrange. He doesn't need a screen to score, whereas it's more helpful for Stoudemire, who's used to playing that way from his days with Steve Nash.
The thing is, Anthony is such a good scorer -- he single-handedly led the Knicks over the Celtics on Christmas Day -- that the Knicks sometimes settle on dishing the ball to him and then standing around watching him go to work. Overall, Anthony and Stoudemire will never be a play-off-each-other duo like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade because their games are suited to shine separately on different areas on the court. They need their teammates in between them to get them the rock. Anthony and Stoudemire will have to adjust more to the flow of the offense and help the Knicks play more of a team game. Through two games, they're averaging only 16 assists per game.
Andy Kamenetzky: Which parks were you a regular at when you first began playing?
Going straight from high school to Italy was another example of Jennings doing things his way.
I started when I was about five at the park. I was playing in a seven-and-under [league] and I was five, so I was the youngest on the team. They told me as long as I can get the ball up to the rim, then I could play.
AK: How intimidating was that at age five?
BJ: It wasn't intimidating at all. I felt like I could play with the best kids. As long as you put me out on the court, I was gonna play hard.
AK: How did you manage to hold your own at such a young age?
BJ: I was faster than all the other kids, and back then, I had a pretty good handle with the left hand.
AK: Is this one of those things like Tiger Woods and his clubs as a little kid? You picked up a basketball and it automatically felt right?
BJ: Well, I started playing basketball when I was about three years old. After that, everything else just came naturally. I had older cousins that used to let me hang with them, so I got my toughness from them. They said I could play as long as I don't cry. That was their main thing. No whining and no crying. Just go out there. If they knock you down, get back up and keep playing.
AK: How did starting out so young against bigger guys shape your skill set and development?
BJ: I was able to pick up a lot of things faster than most kids, because just being around older kids and seeing some of the things they did. Also, just watching some of my favorite players back then. I was a big Allen Iverson fan and a big Kobe Bryant fan. Kobe Bryant used to have the afro back in the day, so I used to have all his sneakers and AI's shoes.
AK: The situation with your father's suicide happened when you were about seven or eight. How did that affect you as a basketball player? Did it change the way you approached the game, in terms of what you wanted from it?
BJ: I just knew that I would have to be the man of the house. When I was about 12 years old, I knew I had to take the game more seriously if I wanted to be able to provide for my family. I knew this was my way out. It made me realize that if this was something I wanted to do, then I would have to be serious about it and I would have to work hard every day to be able to be one of the best players.
AK: That's when you really began to take basketball seriously?
BJ: Yeah. When I was 13, I won the AAU Nationals in Midgets and ever since then, I just took off from there. I never looked back.
"The beasts are now gone, the Goliaths are now gone, so that leaves Dwight Howard out there by himself. So if he doesn't win two or three championships, I'll be very disappointed, because he has no competition out there now. None. Zero."
Well, if you buy the long-standing rumors about Andrew Bynum being "untouchable", that's news to Jim Buss.
Obviously, Shaq may have been erring on the side of hyperbole while making a specific point about Howard, undoubtedly the NBA's best center and a player with whom he's shared a testy relationship. Then again, he may just think there ain't much doing at the 5 these days in the NBA beyond the "other" Superman. In any event, whether or not you agree with Shaq's omission of Drew, those comments do underscore a certain reality: The competition behind Howard is in fact pretty thin.
Bynum may never pass Howard as the preeminent big in the league, but nobody is standing in his way from automatic mention as a close 1a.
Tyson Chandler is an outstanding complementary player, but a complementary player nonetheless. I think Nene is among the more underrated players in the NBA, but you wouldn't build around him. Ditto Andrew Bogut, who's struggled lately to stay healthy. Joakim Noah is a fantastic defender and a beast on the glass, but his offensive game is limited. Brook Lopez is the bizarro-Noah. Chris Kaman is perennially injured. Al Horford is terrific, but undersized as a center. Marc Gasol is rapidly improving and tough as nails, but still not even the best big man on his own team. Emeka Okafor is the dictionary definition of "solid but unspectacular." Marcin Gortat has yet to play an entire season as a starter. Andrea Bargnani will put up 20 while allowing 40. DeMarcus Cousins is talented, but raw and immature.
That's more or less everyone, right?
With Shaq and Yao gone, the stage is set for Bynum to come into a brand new form of credibility. This is about more than making his first All-Star team, which should be a given now that Yao's no longer around. By default, Drew should get the nod as the best remaining center on the highest profile team. It's also about more than his talent, which is obviously high.
What I'm talking about is Bynum's profile, which still remains as much as about being a Laker as his individual skills. As it stands, Drew is undoubtedly -- and rightfully -- viewed as one of the best big men in the league, but I don't quite feel he truly has a persona yet. An identity. And the time is certainly ripe for this particular sea change.
Of course, between the seemingly inevitable injuries, the need to reach yet another level and a potentially brewing push and pull between him and Kobe Bryant, the jump may not be so simple. Still, if next season did end without Shaq either revising his statement or looking painfully foolish for clinging to his original words, it would be nonetheless disappointing on some level.
But only a little.
For the Lakers to fall behind 2-0 with three of the five potential games remaining coming in Dallas would put them in a serious hole. A win Wednesday will require better individual efforts -- Ron Artest can't miss seven of eight shots, and Andrew Bynum, a team-low 16 in Game 1, needs to follow through on his postgame vow to more aggressively take his game to the Dallas Mavericks' Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood in the post -- and more coordinated work as a team.
Here are three more things to watch...
How the Lakers handle Dirk in Game 2 will be a major factor in determining a winner.
To the extent the defender can toss Nowitzki off his game, Pruiti, as some others have, suggests Lakers coach Phil Jackson add a third man to the Dirk Duties hopper: Ron Artest. Before Game 1, Jackson actually addressed that possibility. "I've seen him guarded with shorter guys: 6-5, 6-6, aggressive, quick," he said, noting they've used Artest on Nowitzki from time to time. Still, Jackson classified Artest as a guy to put on Nowitzki in "special needs" situations, making it clear he doesn't want to "overcompensate" in an effort to shut down the Dallas star.
It's not an ideal matchup, because despite Artest's physicality, Nowitzki is so much longer it's pretty easy for him to rise above the earthbound Artest for a clean shot. I suspect Jackson will again do whatever he can to maintain "normal" defensive assignments, starting Gasol on Nowitzki and using Odom when he's on the floor. Still, should either falter, seeing Artest take a few turns won't be a shock, if for no other reason than to give Nowitzki something different to consider.
Regardless, the Lakers need to do a much better job disrupting the ball movement allowing Dallas to register 30 assists on 39 field goals, an incredible rate, particularly on the road where dimes tend to be awarded less liberally. This while continuing to control the defensive boards (only five offensive rebounds and five second chance points for Dallas in Game 1) and keeping the Mavs off the line (11 free-throw attempts allowed).
There will be a tone set by tonight's outcome, regardless of who is standing when the dust settles. Here are a few items to keep an eye on once the ball is jumped.
Kobe Bryant in isolation and his outside shooting
We'll see if shots like this one from Kobe Bryant drop.
Whether specifically because of the "62" game in 2005 or generally because of several strong games in the not-so-distant past, I tend to think of the Mavs as a team Kobe Bryant destroys. That they're low on options to check him (DeShawn Stevenson in limited minutes, Shawn Marion and, um, the popcorn vendor?) only enhances that perception. Thus, I was surprised to learn, via our friends at ESPN Stats & Information, about some of Kobe's numbers this season against Dallas.
On isolation plays this season, Kobe shot 44.3 percent (fourth-highest in the league in iso situations) on 6.3 attempts per game, good for one point per play on average. Against the Mavs, he took more shots in isolation (8.0) but connected at a lower percentage (37.5), dropping the average points per play down to .87.
Continuing that theme, Kobe averaged 8.7 points per game on jumpers 15 feet or further, drilled to the tune of 36.3 percent. Against the Mavs, Bryant was good for just 4.3 points and 22.2 percent shooting.
What to make of the seemingly unlikely dip? After a little digging of my own, I wonder if it could largely reflect one bad game and extenuating circumstances.
Bryant missed 14 of his 20 attempts during a 96-91 win in Dallas and, according to the Hoopdata advanced box score, his outside shooting was particularly horrific. Eight of nine shots were clanged from 16-23 feet. Ditto for all three attempts from behind the arc. Of course, Bryant also badly rolled his left ankle while already mired in a shooting slump. (The previous game was in Miami, site of the famous after-hours shoot-a-thon.) It also stands to reason that at least some of these long shots were created through one-on-one situations.
Remove that game, and the results are a little better. Bad luck from behind the arc persisted, but Kobe has always been a streaky 3-point shooter. In the meantime, he went 2-5 from 16-23 feet during a 109-100 loss and 2-4 from that distance during a 110-82 win. In the former game, Bryant shot 10-18 overall, and in the latter, he visited the line 15 times, meaning any success "containing" Kobe came with an asterisk.
It could be reasonable to conclude the back story surrounding one game could explain, in part, Dallas' unlikely success checking Bryant this season. Then again, considering the state of Kobe's ankle, concerns are understandable. In any event, we'll find out soon enough which iso/outside-shooting version of The Mamba surfaces.
JEFF CAPLAN'S MAVERICKS SCOUTING REPORT
1. Biggest strength: Without question it's Dirk Nowitzki. He has evolved into one of the most strong-willed, clutch players in the game. He emerged as a dominant fourth-quarter performer in the first round against Portland and displayed an arsenal of offensive weaponry, including far more aggressive driving than we've seen. Although he'll be busy on the defensive end against Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, the Lakers haven't found a way to stop Dirk, who averaged 22.0 points and 10.3 rebounds against L.A. this season.
|Andy and Brian preview the Lakers-Mavericks Western Conference semifinals with ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon.Podcast|
2. Biggest weakness: The Mavs' small backcourt didn't hurt them as some thought against Portland's bigger guards, especially on the second units, but the Lakers are a whole other story. It all starts with Kobe Bryant. The Mavs don't possess a true shooting guard with size who can defend and score. DeShawn Stevenson, the team's 12th man who became a starter first because of Rodrigue Beaubois' broken foot and then his ineffectiveness, will start out on Bryant; he typically plays only 13-15 minutes. Behind Stevenson is the 6-foot-2 Jason Terry, an offensive force, and Beaubois, plus under-6-foot backup point guard J.J. Barea, who plays the 2 sometimes next to Jason Kidd.
The problem with Kobe then becomes an issue with Ron Artest, because the Mavs' answer to Kobe will be small forward Shawn Marion, which then leaves the 6-4, 210-pound Kidd to wrestle with the 6-7, 260-pound Artest. We saw that movie once, and the Mavs really don't want to see a sequel.
|Andy and Brian preview the Lakers-Mavericks Western Conference semifinals with ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon.
- "I think he pretty much has to be absolutely dominant," answered McMahon when asked how well Dirk needs to play for the Mavs to pull the upset. "I think for the Mavericks to have a chance in this series, Dirk clearly has to be the best player on the floor for at least four games."
- MacMahon points to Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion as supporting cast members who must step up in support of Nowitzki. He also says he thinks the confirmed unavailability of Caron Butler hurts. The ex-Laker has been out a while, but were he somehow able to recapture his old form in a hurry, Butler has been the best No. 2 scoring option alongside Nowitzki in quite some time.
- How will the Mavs go about defending Kobe Bryant? In MacMahon's estimation, not particularly well. DeShawn Stevenson is a decent enough option but plays only limited minutes as a starter. If you eventually put Marion on Kobe, that leaves "Pick your undersized Player X" to get bullied by Ron Artest. As for matchups favoring the Mavs, MacMahon says he thinks the backup backcourt of Terry and Jose Barea could provide some fits, but at the end of the day, it's mostly about Dirk being the best big on the floor.
- So what to expect in this series from Mark Cuban and his rarely shut mouth? Beyond "fun" jabs at Artest and Phil Jackson, MacMahon predicted another scenario with the potential to send the billionaire's lips into motion:
"Any time the Mavericks lose, be on the look out for lessons about officiating and journalism, because those are the things that seem to cost the Mavericks a ton of games."
Speaking of patterns, there is a decided rhythm to whenever Cuban decides to embark on an anti-journalism crusade: Mavericks will lose a few straight games, then Cuban will take issue with the press. In 2008, after slow dividends to the Jason Kidd deal, Cuban imposed a brief locker room lockout for any blogger, even those attached to a major newspaper. This pitted MacMahon (then with the Dallas Morning News) and me (then with the L.A. Times) as quasi-political prisoners during a Lakers-Mavs game in Dallas. It also led to my open letter to Cuban calling shenanigans on this nonsense.
Ah, Memory Lane!
- Predictions! MacMahon offers a skeptical"Lakers in 7," while Brian and I both see the Lakers closing out in Game 6.
- With MacMahon gone, Brian and I discuss more Lakers-Mavericks matchups and whether the Lakers can resist the bait that is Dallas' zone defense.
Here are a few, touching on some of the more common themes as everyone gears up for Monday's Game 1 against the Mavericks:
Q, from @RamiSoufi: Will #Lakers avoid mistakes of #Hornets Game 1 when playing Mavs? Who will mostly guard Dirk? Lakers bench vs Mavs Bench?
A: Kudos to Rami for squeezing three questions into 140 characters. Going in order...
1. If the mistake in Round 1 was a lack of adequate energy and respect for the opponent- it's certainly a common hypothesis- then no. I don't see the Lakers coming out Monday night with too casual an attitude. Doesn't mean they can't lose, but if L.A. goes down, it'll be for different reasons. Dallas is a good team, after all, capable of beating even an engaged Lakers squad.
Pau Gasol vs. Dirk Nowitzki: A key matchup on both ends of the floor.
2. Dirk duty falls, more often than not, to a combination of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, with Ron Artest likely taking a turn here and there. Both Odom and Gasol have had (relative) success against Nowitzki in the past, though like Kobe Bryant, Dirk is a guy very difficult to truly shut down for an extended period. As our friends at ESPN Stats and Information point out, Dirk is incredibly effective in isolation, ranking at the top of the league in field goal percentage (56.8 percent) and points per play (1.10) on iso's. Against the Lakers, he's finished on seven-of-eight chances in isolation.
Against Gasol, S & I note the success Dirk has had on the perimeter, hitting 11-of-19 shots for 27 points (five of those buckets coming off screens), but only 1-for-7 in the post.
As a counter, the Lakers will need to force Dirk to work at the other end. Over the course of seven games, having to carry the Mavs offensively while playing a key role on defense could be enough to wear him down, and Dallas can't afford a less-than-outstanding Nowitzki if they expect to win the series.
3. Advantage Mavs. Odom is the best talent coming off either bench, but Jason Terry, while not my favorite player (too one-dimensional, too streaky) is still an asset. Jose Juan Barea, while not a great finisher at the rim, is a dynamic reserve guard, while Peja Stojakovic is a reliable source of perimeter shooting. The Lakers reserves were supposed to be better this season, adding Steve Blake and Matt Barnes while keeping Shannon Brown, but as a group have been extremely inconsistent.
Q, from @InfiniteHighway: @ESPNLandOLakers @ESPNLA K-Bros, how will the Lakers stay disciplined against the zone and not take those hard to make jumpers?
A: The Lakers, at least in theory, are tailor made to attack a zone. Every member of their starting lineup is a solid passer or better, all but one (Derek Fisher) is comfortable working out of the post. Plus, they play in a motion offense that encourages cutting to open spaces, moving without the ball, and hurting teams with the pass. Then again, zones also present the Lakers problems, namely because they're an adequate-at-best jump shooting team easily seduced in to hoisting them.
The zone D is a major part of Dallas' identity. They use it not with shame, but pride. If the Lakers are patient and stick to their offensive principles, they could force the Mavs into more man-t0-man than they might otherwise prefer.
- Who has been L.A.'s playoff MVP thus far?
- Who is the most important player for each team? In the series, overall?
- Does Pau Gasol bounce back from a tough opening series?
- Who wins, in how many games, and why?
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.
1. January 19 (at Dallas)- Mavericks 109, Lakers 100
2. March 12 (at Dallas)- Lakers 96, Mavericks 91
3. March 31 (at Staples)- Lakers 110, Mavericks 82
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:
Thursday's fall to the Heat coincided with the Mavs beating the Knicks. Thus, the Lakers are now two losses behind Team Cuban in the quest for the Western Conference's second seed. Saturday's result will swing the standings a full game in either direction. Should the Lakers fall three games behind, the race is essentially over in mid-March.
For more insight on the Mavs, we talked with Jeff Caplan, who covers the team for ESPNDallas. Here are a few items to keep an eye on once the ball is jumped.
K Bros: From a matchup perspective, where do you see the strengths and weaknesses for Dallas against the Lakers?
Everyone knows Dirk can score? But can he slow Pau and LO?
As for weakness, even though the Mavs have stocked up on 7-footers specifically to face the Lakers, L.A.'s big men, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, are far more skilled inside, and when Dirk Nowitzki is on Gasol, I believe he's crafty enough to make it tough on Nowitzki. And when Lamar Odom is in as well, I'm not sure the Mavs can effectively match up.