- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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They might all count the same in the standings, but all regular-season games are not created equal.
While many of the same participants in last season's series will be on the floor, both the Lakers and Mavericks are working with significantly different rosters. Los Angeles has a new coach in Mike Brown and a revamped bench, while Dallas is adjusting to life without Tyson Chandler, now in New York, and J.J. Barea, who signed with Minnesota.
Central to changes with each team is Mavericks forward Lamar Odom, traded from Los Angeles to Dallas in the preseason in exchange for a first-round pick and a trade exception.
For Lakers fans and players alike, the return of Odom, who spent seven seasons between 2004-2011 in Los Angeles winning two titles, is another dominant storyline.
Gasol said while playing against Odom will be tough, he's looking forward to seeing him.
"He's a player who has been a part of great things here, and I was happy to be his teammate. I enjoyed every minute that I was able to play with him. Such an unselfish, versatile guy would sacrifice himself for the betterment of the team, always. The kind of player you like to have on your side," he said.
"Unfortunately, he's not here anymore. Regardless of who we are facing and who are the players on the opposing team, we want to win."
Through his first 13 games in Dallas, Odom has struggled mightily, averaging only 6.8 points and 5.0 rebounds. His 20 minutes per game represent a career low by far. Last year in Los Angeles, Odom averaged 14.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 3.0 assists, earning the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award. In the wake of his departure, the Lakers have struggled replacing his production off the bench. Lakers reserves are scoring less than any team in the league.
Gasol said they're working as hard as they can, but can't look backward. "You've got to move on in this league, and play with what you do have."
Reserve forward Luke Walton believes the reserves are still searching for a firm identity as a group. "There have been a lot of injuries and a lot of different rotations so far, so it's kind of tough to have a solid identity with that. But the bench's role is to bring energy and to play a different style of ball than the starting five, and that's what we've got to get better at," he said.
Lakers coach Mike Brown put some of the blame on himself.
"It's me, too, because I'm experimenting," he said. "So, at least not yet, I can't really evaluate our bench the right way in terms of where they should be at this point until I can be a little more consistent with them."
Odom's loss isn't simply an on-court matter, either.
"You miss his off the court stuff just as much as on the court. He's just one of those guys that keeps stuff light all the time and makes it fun to come to work," Walton said.
Monday is also the first matchup between the teams since Dallas swept the Lakers out of last year's Western Conference Semifinals, ending their two-year run as NBA champions.
Sunday in El Segundo, the Lakers made little effort to pretend the game doesn't have extra significance. "Absolutely [it's big]," forward Luke Walton said. " I know everyone says it's another regular-season game, and it is, but it's one of those regular season games that are going to be a little more exciting and that you want a little more than the other ones."
Fellow forward Pau Gasol agrees.
"There's a little more to it," he said. "They won a championship last year, they eliminated us for the run to the championship, so it is a regular-season game, but at the same time [it is significant]."
Gasol's performance against the Mavericks will garner extra scrutiny, because of how he fared against Dallas last postseason. In four games widely considered to be his worst since joining the Lakers in February of 2008, Gasol averaged 12.5 points on 42.2 percent shooting from the field, well below season averages of 18.8 points and 53 percent. Following the Lakers' practice Sunday in El Segundo, Gasol hinted at personal motivation for Monday's game, but placed more emphasis on bigger picture concerns.
"Personally, it's a game that I want to play well and I want to help my team win," he said. "It's a different year, a different season, a different scenario, too. It's not like we're in any game of the playoffs that we played last year. But it's a tough matchup. They're playing well, they're on a roll right now, and we need to win in order to bounce back from [Saturday's loss to the Clippers] and also to get into a good rhythm going to Florida [for games Thursday and Friday against Miami and Orlando]."
Brian Kamenetzky is the co-author of the Land O'Lakers blog on ESPNLosAngeles.com
Lamar Odom returns to Staples for first time since leaving L.A.