By John Carroll
Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki will be facing each other for the first time in the NBA playoffs when the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks meet in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Lakers won the NBA Championship because of their collective length and size. Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom give the Lakers one of the most dominant frontlines in the NBA. In addition they have one of the greatest scorers in NBA history in Kobe Bryant.
The Mavericks are a team that has a combination of inside toughness and depth. Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood must patrol the inside for the Mavs and defend the paint and rim. The Mavericks lack a perimeter defender who can guard Kobe Bryant. They will be forced to use Shawn Marion, DeShawn Stevenson and even Jason Kidd in a pinch. In their last series versus Portland the Mavs were able to defend 1-1 and did not have to bring help. Due to the abilities of Kobe Bryant and Gasol that strategy may have to change in this series.
One of the key matchups to watch in this series will be the one between Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol. Gasol is utilized via the triangle offense. He is a highly skilled big man who can shoot the mid range shot as well as score in the paint. Nowitzki is involved in numerous offensive sets and gets a ton of touches for the Mavs. The Lakers took two of the three games versus Dallas in the regular season. These two teams come into this series with some bad blood. In their last meeting of the regular season, the Lakers pounded the Mavericks by 28 points and five players were ejected.
5 Keys to the series:
Battle of the Bigs: In recent years the Dallas Mavericks have been labeled a soft defensive team and owner Mark Cuban went out and did everything he could to change that image. He added Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood to provide interior toughness and lock down opposing teams post players. The Lakers pounded teams in the paint all year with their duo of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. One of the reasons the Lakers went 2-1 against Dallas this year was due to their paint dominance. In the 3 games Gasol averaged 20 points per game on 50% shooting. Bynum averaged 17 points, 12 rebounds, on an incredible 70 percent shooting. Odom averaged 14 points on 51% shooting. Chandler is giving up weight to Andrew Bynum but has to use his quickness and athleticism to wear down Bynum. If Nowitzki wants to slow down Gasol he must play physical and keep him from catching the ball deep in the post. Rebounding will be a big key in this series. When the Lakers defeated the Mavericks 110-82 in their most recent regular season meeting it was due to a 28-9 advantage in second chance points. Chandler and Haywood must keep the Laker big men off the offensive boards.
Slowing down the stars: Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki have been two of best players in the league during the past decade. The two stars are always a tough matchup for any team. During the regular season Dallas held Kobe to 22 points per game on 40% shooting. DeShawn Stevenson will get to start on Bryant. In the past Stevenson has done a decent job on Bryant but lacks the size to contest every one of his shots. Unfortunately with Stevenson on the floor for extended minutes the Mavericks offense takes a major hit. The Mavs will utilize multiple defenders on Bryant. Stevenson, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, or Rodrique Beaubois will all take a shot at him. If Bryant detects a size mismatch he will take his defender into the post and looks to score over him. When he has the bigger Marion defending him he attempts to beat him off the dribble.
The Los Angeles Lakers have to find a way to contain Dirk Nowitzki throughout this seven game series. During the regular season the Lakers used their length and toughness to limit Dirk to 22 points a game on 45% shooting. Gasol will get the difficult assignment of guarding Nowitzki to begin the game. Look for Dirk to take Gasol out on the perimeter and force him to defend away from the basket. Look for Nowitzki to get a few post up opportunities versus Gasol in hopes of getting him into early foul trouble. When Lamar Odom enters the game and is assigned to Nowitzki he will try to use his length and athleticism to contest Dirk’s shots. We also could see the very physical Ron Artest used on Nowitzki at times in this series.
Getting into the zone: The Dallas Mavericks are faced with numerous matchup problems in this series. Their biggest problem is that they have no one to guard Kobe Bryant. They also like to play a smaller lineup with Jason Terry and Jose Juan Barea on the floor at the same time. One way the Mavericks could hide their matchup issues and play a small lineup is by going to their 2-3 zone. Rick Carlisle went to the zone during the regular season and used it even more frequently in their first round series versus the Portland Trailblazers. The zone can be very effective at taking teams out of their rhythm and disrupting their offensive sets. As a result the effectiveness of the triangle offense could be limited. At times during the regular season the Lakers have struggled versus the zone. Last year the Lakers struggled when the Phoenix Suns utilized their zone in the playoffs. One problem the Mavericks may have is rebounding out of the zone. The Lakers were tied for 4th in the league with 12.1 offensive rebounds per game.The Lakers will pound the offensive glass and get second chance points. The Mavericks must make rebounding a priority in this series whether they are playing man or zone.
Defending the Dallas pick and roll: The Lakers had a difficult time containing Chris Paul in the pick and roll in the first round. Whereas Chris Paul was the ball handler in the pick and roll, the Mavericks will utilize Dirk Nowitzki mostly as a screener. During the regular season when teams switched the pick and roll Dirk was able to shoot over the smaller defenders. If the Lakers do not switch they run they must give help with their bigs and not let Kidd, Terry, or Barea turn the corner. The Laker big men must be active, alert and aggressive in all pick and rolls. In addition the Lakers may have to rotate quickly from the closest man on pick and pops to Dirk.
Bench production: The Dallas Mavericks have one the deepest teams in the NBA. Lamar Odom of the Lakers and Jason Terry of the Mavericks are both Sixth Man of the Year award winners. During the regular season Odom averaged 14 points a game compared to Terry’s 16. After Odom, the Lakers bench struggles to consistently score. Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, and Shannon Brown average a combined 20 points per game. Peja Stojakovic and Jose Juan Barea of the Dallas Mavericks combined to average 20 points per game during the regular season. Barea or Stojakovic are both very capable of having a breakout offensive night, whereas the odds of that happening for Barnes, Blake, and Brown are very slim. Haywood is another key player off the Mavericks bench. He will be called upon in this series to rest Chandler and use his size and toughness to clog the paint and defend the Lakers big men.
Prediction: Lakers in 6