Archives For March 2009

Jordan Farmar Tribute

Kurt —  March 22, 2009

After last night, he and the bench deserve a few props.

And for those wanting to get pumped for the playoffs:

Preview & Chat: The Chicago Bulls

Kurt —  March 21, 2009

Records: Lakers 54-13 (1st in the West) Bulls 32-37 (8th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.8 (1st in league) Bulls 107.3 (18th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.6 (6th in league) Bulls 108.4 (17th in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Bulls Derrick Rose, Ben Gordom, John Salmons, Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah

Watching the Tournament: I am a rather sad 89th in the FB&G NCAA Tournament pool after a rough second day, and my Midwest bracket is a disaster. Congrats to irielakerfan10 (March Moustache Madness) who leads after the first round of play.

I like to watch games and think about guys at the next level, specifically guys on my team. It’s far too early to say who the Lakers will take with a pick at the bottom of the first rounds, private workouts have not started and there will be a lot of movement on the draft board. But, you can get an idea of the guys available at the end of the first round.

DraftExpress (the best of the draft sites, for my money) has the Lakers taking Tyler Hansbrough, which is not an idea I love. I’m not sure how well his game will transfer to the next level, I’d rather take on a good athlete but a bit of a project. Still, there are some interesting names at picks 25-30: Jerome Jordan (Tulsa), Darren Collison (UCLA), Chase Budinger (Arizona), Hansbrough (UNC) and Damion James (Texas). Just a couple guys to watch.

The Lakers coming in: Two quick thoughts on Phil Jackson’s update on Andrew Bynum’s return at some point next month, at which time he needs to play his way into shape.

One, if I wanted to take the pressure off a kid working out to get back, which watching his team struggle without him, I’d say exactly what Jackson did. You don’t want Bynum to rush back too fast, and you want your team to focus on the now and not be looking for the Cavalry to come charging over the hill. PJ did both those things.

Second is something Eric Pincus once told me that is dead true around the league: Coaches are the worst place to get injury updates. They are out of that loop. They have so much on their plate, dealing with game plans and practices and travel, that they have no time to fantasize about players they don’t have on the active roster (except Larry Brown, apparently). Coaches get their injury status updates second or third hand, often, and they are simply not very reliable sources on these things.

The Bulls Coming In: Another game in the “with this roster they should have a better record” series. Because to me, the Bulls still have a lot of talent — Rose will lead the way, but guys like Thomas and Deng and Hinrich can be very good, athletic pieces of a puzzle The Bulls just haven’t figured out how to put it all together yet.

The Bulls also seem to have made out well in their trade with the Kings at the deadline. Here is Matt from By the Horns talking about Salmons and Brad Miller (both of whom had some good games against the Lakers when they were in SacTown) after the Bulls beat OKC:

Like John Salmons, who followed up his 38-point effort against the Celtics with 20 points on 8-for-15 from the field (which gives him 82 points in his last three games). I have to tell you, Salmons is better than I thought he was. Since he arrived from Sacramento, he’s averaging more points on fewer shot attempts (and 50 percent shooting), he’s rebounding a little better and his PER has jumped from 16.1 to 18.5.

Speaking of former Kings who are better than I thought, how about Brad Miller? Last night he chipped in 14 points, 6 boards and a team-high 5 assists off the bench. And yeah, his numbers are up since his relocation to Chicago, but with Brad it’s more about those little intangibles. Like the way he manages to come up with key offensive rebounds (he had four of them last night). Or how he manages to get to the hoop. How does he do that? Seriously, Brad Miller couldn’t outrun a park bench, but somehow he gets his shambling bulk to the front of the rim. I guess you could call that veteran savvy.

The Bulls have a lot of pieces, but I just don’t se the overarching plan of what kind of team they are trying to be. With all the athleticism on this team, they should not be middle of the pack in both offense and defense in the league. They should be excelling at something.

Keys To The Game: The Bulls are 17-12 against the West this season. Just putting it out there to say this is no gimmee.

There is nobody on the Bulls that can stop Gasol and his host of moves, no matter how tired he is right now. The Bulls have struggled to defend the four and the five all season, The Lakers need to establish Gasol early, as always. The second unit needs to use him. I feel like I write variations of that sentence every game, but it’s in hopes of actually seeing it some day.

The Lakers need to control the paint on both ends. On defense, they need to not let Rose just get to the rim, because he can both finish and set up those athletic wings from there. Force him to be a jump shooter, he is average to cold if you can force him out of the middle of the floor and get him shooting from the wings (he will kill you from the free throw line with jumpers, if you let him. With Noah in the lineup, the Lakers can afford to help off him, but when Brad Miller enters the game it is more problematic, he is the type of big with a midrange game that really hurts the Lakers defensive rotations.

The Bulls are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league, Gasol and Odom should get a lot of second-chance points tonight.

Where you can watch: 5:30 start time for those of us in LA, with KCAL 9 doing the broadcast, or WGN if you want to the Bulls announcers.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers

Records: Lakers 53-14 (1st in the West) Warriors 24-43 (10th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.7 (1st in league) Warriors 109.5 (10th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.6 (6th in league) Warriors 113.0 (28th of 30)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Warriors Monta Ellis, Stephen Jackson, Marco Belinelli, Brandan Wright, Ronny Turiaf

Lakers notes: While in recent posts we’ve railed against the bench play of late, there is one thing from yesterday’s comments that bears repeating — Phil Jackson does not have a lot of options right now.

Until Andrew Bynum comes back, he has to stick with pretty much this front line rotation, and if winning is the goal then that means lots of minutes for Gasol.

In the playoffs, with long rests between games and long commercial breaks during them, he can limit the minutes of Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar and give those minutes to Fish and Kobe, but in the regular season with 10 of 15 games remaining on the road, you need the bench guys to play. He can’t yet tighten his rotations.

But when the games matter, if the bench is still playing like this, some people are going to see a lot less of the court.

On a separate note, you can see some Lakers players NCAA brackets right here. The fact I have Gonzaga going farther than Adam Morrison does concerns me greatly.

The Warriors Coming In: No Jamal Crawford tonight, not because he is injured but because Don Nelson is brilliant. Or just nuts. But the coach is sitting him. Bottom line is it means more minutes for Marco Belinelli and Anthony Morrow. On the other hand, Stephen Jackson will be back and should be on his best behavior — since he already has 16 technical fouls this season, every one earn gets him another game suspended without pay. Of course, the question of what is Jackson’s best behavior is an open one.

I like Monta Ellis, and to be honest I think the Warriors have a roster that is not as bad as its record. I like the athleticism of Kelenna Azubuike. Anthony Randolph could be good. Corey Maggette may be overpaid but his a good scorer to have coming off the bench. Andris Biedrins is quality, when healthy. They are overpaying for a few of these guys, and there are too many shooters who don’t care about defense, but the roster has the pieces in place to start to build something.

But this is a franchise that is at the top of my list right now of how not to run a front office. Everyone needs to be on the same page — the GM getting players that fit the coach’s system, with everyone from the owner on down buying into that system. But that’s not what is going on in the Bay Area at all — the GM and coach are in a power struggle, and player/personnel moves struggle because of it. Mullin wanted to offer Barron Davis a three-year deal to come back, the team president shot it down.

Mullin is going to be out soon. But that leaves Don Nelson, who has seemed more mad than genius lately, running the show and dictating front office moves. Is that how you improve the franchise?

Keys To The Game: Transition defense. Transition defense. Transition defense. The Lakers gave up 68 points in the first half the last time they played the Warriors. Transition defense. Transition defense. Transition defense.

Part of transition defense, however, is not getting sucked into the style and tempo the other team wants to play at. It means not launching threes 5 seconds into the shot clock or pushing the break when nothing develops. It means making smart decisions. I’m looking at you, Jordan Farmar. The Lakers need to dictate the tempo of this game.

Turnovers will also be key. The Lakers lost to Philly because they could not hold on tot the ball and that meant easy baskets in transition for the Sixers. Do that tonight and the Lakers are in another dogfight. Hold on to the ball and it should be a comfortable win.

Where you can watch: 7:30 start here with the TNT crew. I suppose a Charles Barkley Drinking Game would be in bad form.

It’s All Mental

Kurt —  March 18, 2009

It’s what makes losses like the one to the 76ers frustrating — mental lapses. If the Lakers bench issues were just a matter of cold shooting or the other team hitting great shots, that happens sometimes. Like that last shot of the game, credit Iguodala. But the Lakers suffer more from the mental lapses than physical ones right now.

How else do you explain that Pau Gasol had just three shots in the second half against Dallas and five against Philly?

The bigger problems have been with the bench unit. As has been said, they are going to struggle some because of personnel — the Lakers two best bench players when things were going right were Ariza and Odom, and now they are starting. Bynum’s return next month will help. But it does not excuse the mental errors, the lapses. It’s harder and harder to forgive them this late in the season.

What follows is a breakdown of when the Lakers really lost this game, the start of the fourth quarter.

11:36, Lakers +14: After passing around the perimeter, Andre Miller ends up with the ball 15 feet out on the right baseline where, just as the Lakers defense is supposed to, it traps him with Sasha and Powell. The Sixers look lost — until Miller leans and splits the double team so he has an open passing lane and throws a skip-pass to Iguodala. How does it split them? Good question. But skip passes kill the Lakers defense. Pau runs out at Iggy to stop the three, so Iggy puts it on the floor and now nobody is really between him and the bucket. Lay up.

11:13, Lakers +12: Sasha has the ball and Powell flashes to the strong-side high post and gets the ball. Then Powell spins and tries to pass to Kobe mid-post on the weak side, the kind of high-low thing Pau and LO run well. But then they tend to look when they pass. Iguodala is playing ball denial defense on Kobe, gets the easy steal. Mental error and a turnover. The steal leads a break that ends with a Williams layup.

10:55, Lakers +10: Farmar and Kobe run the two-man game in the triangle, with Kobe in the high post. He gets the ball a few steps out from the elbow, faces up Iguodala, drives the lane, draws the entire city of Philadelphia including the Phillie Phanatic, then kicks out to Gasol for a wide-open 18 footer. Splash. Good things happen when Pau gets the ball.

10:30, Lakers +12: After some working around the perimeter, Williams just decides to go to the hoop and blows past Sasha. But Pau slides over to help so it is a kick-out long two from Iguodala. That’s the best you can do as the Lakers and they get the desired result, a miss. Then Reggie Evans grabs the board and everything resets.

In the scramble for the board the Lakers ended up switched around on their men, which meant Farmar trying to guard Iguodala, a slight mismatch. Farmar actually tries something smart and fronts Iggy, but the lob pass goes over his head and the backside rotation is late. Powell fouls. He hits one of two.

10:01, Lakers + 11: Now it is Farmar and Powell playing some two-man pick and roll. With Kobe and Pau Gasol on the strong side, is this really the offensive play you want to run? What has been frustrating about Farmar lately has not just been the missed shots, but the bad decisions. Anyway, off one pick Powell rolls to the hoop, both defenders play the middle ground and Farmar can shoot the 18 footer or hit an open Powell running to the basket. Instead, Jordan half-asses the pass and it gets knocked up in the air and stolen.

Iguodala runs and dunks.

9:23: Lakers +9: This time Kobe flashes into the high post and gets the ball, with Iguodala draped on him. There are cutters but nothing really open, so Kobe turns and faces up, rises up and shoots the 17-footer over and outstretched arm. Miss. Powell picks up the lose ball foul going for the board.

Williams has the ball out on the wing deep and starts to show a baseline drive, so Powell leaves Donyell Marshal to help almost immediately. Williams kicks over to the wide open Marshall, the one guy you can’t leave open from three on this team. Another mental error, another Philly bucket.

9:01, Lakers +6: The Sixers have decided who is not going to beat them. When Kobe comes off a high Powell screen both defenders jump out to trap, so Kobe dribbles away and hits Pau with a pass out by the three-point line. But Pau can drive and does into the lane, drawing help defenders. That leaves Powell open. Quick pass and Powell with the layup. Give Pau the ball and good things happen. So, we’re going to stop that now.

8:42, Lakers +8: Iggy gets the ball and is isolated on Kobe way out past the three-point line on the wing. He blows right past Kobe and Gasol is very late on the defensive rotation, and Iggy gets the and one.

8:26: Lakers +5: Kobe wants it now, but he is cold. He gets it on the wing and almost instantly launches a three that hits the back of the rim, but Pau gets the offensive board. Kobe and Pau now run the P&R, straight away, Kobe sees a lane and takes it all the way to the rim, miss but a blocking foul. He was passing, so ball out of bounds. Second time around, Powell is going up and has the ball knocked out of his hands, so Lakers ball out of bounds.

Third time around starts with Kobe on the wing getting a screen from Gasol and driving the lane, then kicking out to a wide open Farmar, who misses the three. Gasol grabs the rebound and proceeds to miss a six-foot hook. Shoulda worked with Cap on that. This is actually a sequence I can live with, the Lakers got good looks but just didn’t hit the shot. It is very different in that way from trips down before or after.

Williams pushes the ball up and while it is not 7 seconds or less, the Sixers get what they want, guys left alone or and outnumbering Lakers in the paint, Two quick passes and Reggie Evans finishes with a dunk.

7:32: Lakers +3: Kobe and Gasol are high pick and roll again. I know Kobe wants to take over here, but it is time to try to get some points out of the offense He ignores my advice, drives off the pick into the lane and hits Josh Powell for the five footer. Missed. But Powell grabs his own rebound and takes a couple steps to try and lay it in. Never bothers to dribble. Turns out you have to dribble. Except for LeBron. Traveling call and a turnover.

A couple of passes around the perimeter for Philly and the ball comes over to Ivey, Sasha is closing out on him and as he gets close Ivey puts the ball on the floor and blows past him into the lane. This is where we miss Bynum because nobody is sagging off to stop the penetration. Another layup.

7:04, Lakers +1: Kobe waits for the offense to give him the ball, then he calls Powell over for a wing pick and roll, Kobe gets into the lane and slips on some wet floor. Bad break, and the turnover means the Sixers are out on the break, Iggy has the ball and nobody stops the ball. Layup.

Timeout Lakers. I could go for the final five points of the run, but why bother.

Records: Lakers 53-13 (1st in the West) 76ers 33-31 (6th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.8 (1st in league) 76ers 106.3 (23rd in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.6 (6th in league) 76ers 105.6 (6th in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
76ers Andre Miller, Willie Green (appropriate guy to start today), Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young, Samuel Dalembert

The Lakers coming in: Lest you think only you noticed this, early in his post game press conference after the Dallas game, Phil Jackson talked about how the Lakers have lost the killer instinct they had earlier in the season, when they got up by 15 and buried teams.

The players kind of shrugged that off at practice Monday. I personally think this is really a matter of boredom and focus, plus the injury to Bynum weakening the rotations. The Lakers keep winning, and while they get up for the challenges — back-to-backs in Houston and San Antonio — they get up by 15 early on Dallas and they just kind of start going through the motions.

But now is the time to start changing that, to start getting focused, because if it is Dallas in the first round they may not be so lucky to come back and win those games.

The 76ers Coming In: This is the first game of a six-game West Coast swing for the Sixers, who come in with a three game winning streak. The swing is a tough test, but it’s a chance for a team that is just missing that little something to pull together before the playoffs. They likely will get Orlando in the first round, and that is a tough task but not an impossible one (after the Nelson injury).

That little thing the Sixers lack, by the way, is any kind of consistent outside shooter. Nobody on the team stretches the floor. They are sort of like Utah of three years ago that way.

I have always loved Andre Miller’s game, he is a classic PG who can pass, penetrate and play solid defense. And he is playing well — scoring 18 a game while shooting 54% and dishing out 8 assists per game the last 10. Of course, the other guy to watch is Iguodala, who leads he team in scoring, slashes to the hole as well as anyone and gets them both assists and rebounds. Plus, he is the only guy to fear from three on this team, shooting 36.4% in the last 10 games from deep.

Keys To The Game: My one word of advice — don’t drink green beer tonight. Green eggs and ham I could see, but beer? No.

If there was one game where the Lakers pack-the-paint style of defense should work, it is this one — the 76ers are the worst three point shooting team in the NBA, hitting just 31.5% of their attempts. What they do have is an athletic front line, but if you can keep them out of the paint and shooting jumpers, they struggle. (That said, the Lakers need to be ready to adjust, Donyell Marshall got hot from three in their last game against the Heat and it changed everything.)

On defense, the Sixers are about gambling and forcing turnovers, which leads to easy buckets going the other way with all the athletic guys they have that can fill the lanes. The Lakers have to take care of the ball — I’m looking at you Farmar and Sasha.

Also, the Sixers do play some zone, and after the disaster against Dallas, you can be sure they will pull it out tonight. Darius talked about how to attack that:

The way to beat a zone is with the high post flash and the baseline player running from short corner to short corner as the ball reverses. Odom and Powell would be perfect in this role, but we have to be patient and move the ball.

One other lesson needs to be learned from the Dallas game — when the zone came out the Lakers became a jump shooting team, and that fueled some transition baskets for the Mavs. The Sixers are very good in the open court and would love some long rebounds and chances to run. Just another reason to make sure the ball gets inside early and often. Second unit, I’m looking at you. Again.

Where you can watch: 7:30 start at Staples, on Fox Sports in LA, if you’re already not too drunk on St. Patrick’s Day. And if you are, don’t drive (insert your own Norm Nixon joke here, if you want).

Remember the Mantra

Kurt —  March 16, 2009
Texas News - January 14, 2009

The Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them

I typed that sentence roughly 8 million times in the preseason and the first month of games. But as the season has moved on and wins kept piling up, the early season mantra has faded out. The offense has been beautiful, shiny toy that distracts us from a defense that is at times brilliant and at times frustrating.

But the mantra remains true. It is the Lakers defense that is the key to a title — and now is the time to start really ratcheting it up.

Which is why the Dallas game was frustrating. The Lakers were in control of that game early because of that distracting offense — Pau Gasol was in control of the paint and that was opening up wide-open threes for Ariza and others. But while the Lakers were shooting 71% eFG% in the first quarter, Dallas was shooting 67%. It wasn’t Dirk and Kidd, the Lakers did a good job of pushing those two out of the places they wanted to be on the floor, then contesting their shots and passes (at least early in the game).

Then Terry entered the game and quickly nailed two threes for Dallas. He’s like that; this is a pure shooter and a guy who for a night can carry a team. They run him of screens so he can catch and shoot, put him on the weakside so he can get skip passes. The Lakers know this, he has burned them before. This means you have to adjust, you don’t stray far from the hot hand. So what do they do? Sasha, Ariza and Walton all had turns on him, and while Terry hit some contested shots the Lakers players — particularly bench players — were not getting through picks fast enough and he was getting a lot of open looks. Bigs were not helping out. It was a team effort.

Then the Lakers offense started helping Dallas — long jumpers against a zone that missed and became long rebounds led to fast break and early clock chances for the Mavericks.

Finally, when it mattered, the Lakers got stop by pressuring the ball on Kidd and Dirk, not letting them make the clean, easy pass to Terry or anyone else. But the Lakers went lax on defense for a long time. Rather than put a team away again, they played around. Phil Jackson said as much after the game, saying the Lakers now do not have the killer instinct of the team from earlier this season. That is particularly true on defense, and particularly with the bench, which seems to want to steal and break rather than play team defense.

That frustrating game followed a couple where the Lakers defense was also up and down.

In Houston, the Lakers could not stop the Rockets inside — Yao Ming and Luis Scola combined to shoot 14 of 18. Part of the problem here for the Lakers was not having Bynum, but the Rockets were able to get balls inside on a defense that is supposed to protect the paint. The Lakers did a poor job slowing entry passes or interior passes. Fortunately for the Lakers, Brooks and Artest wanted to do all the shooting, and the Lakers played those two well. With Artest, they just didn’t let him get to the rim and he was not hitting his jumper (plus, he just destroys the flow of their offense when he tries to take over a game).

The one good thing the Lakers did against the Rockets was pressure the ball and create turnovers. When the Lakers defense is going well against anyone, you see this. Phil Jackson talked about this in a backhanded way: When asked the difference between the NBA Finals Mavs of a couple years ago and these Mavs, he talked about the ball pressure defense. How they never let you get easily into the offense or the spots you wanted on the floor. The current Mavericks team doesn’t do that.

The Lakers do it sporadically. Then did it in the final minutes against Dallas Sunday and it worked.

Against the Spurs, the Lakers used a smart defensive system, as Darius explained.

I really liked how we kept the ball on one side of the court against the Spurs offense (the Spurs really helped us accomplish this by continuing to initiate their sets from the wing, but that’s a tangential discussion). We did not allow Parker to get back to the middle of the court and continued to force him baseline and feed him to our bigs. Parker would much rather shoot from directly in front of the hoop with his floater or come at an angle where he can use the glass, but when he comes from the side and he can’t do either he will not force it. I also liked the way that Odom played Parker when we switched the P&R-following him through the lane and then chasing him back to the perimeter, playing off him, and then contesting his jumpers. In the second half, we didn’t do as good a job of keeping Parker out of the middle of the court and he showed why he’s one of the better scoring guards in the league.

Part of the challenge for the Lakers is that their best defense seems to flow out of the offense — when they are hitting shots and they have time to set the defense and put on whatever level of ball pressure, they do it. When shots don’t fall, someone argues with the ref while a couple teammates are back trying to stop a break or a drag play (a high screen early in the shot clock before the defense sets). When the Lakers are set, they tend to be good.

Having Ariza in the starting lineup seems to help. Against Dallas, we saw him spend time on Jason Kidd, a PG too big for Fisher but not a good enough shooter to warrant Kobe’s full time attention. Ariza can guard positions one through three, and it opens up what the Lakers can do. In the second half against Mavs he spent time on Terry, Kidd and Singleton, and the Lakers use him as the long-armed closeout guy on the weakside of the zoned off defensive scheme.

But we all know the Lakers have the personnel to play good defense. The question is are they focused on it. Right now, starting in the next stretch, they need to get that laser focus back.

The Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them.

Here’s my dilemma: For only the second time ever, my alma mater Cal State Northridge made the tournament. So, I’m obligated to pick them to win a game.

Except, they drew Memphis, a team I want to have going very deep into the tournament. So now, do I pick the Matadors and hope I’m wrong about Memphis, or go with my head and just hope Northridge covers the spread?

This is a year filled with tournament dilemmas.

And we are doing a FB&G pool. Joining is free and the winner gets and FB&G shirt. And bragging rights.

Just follow this link.
Group Name: Forum Blue & Gold
Group ID#: 54708
Password: smushcalade

The better answer to my dilemma would have been to go to UNC for college….

Olympics Day 8 - Basketball
Records: Lakers 52-13 (1st in the West) Mavericks 40-26 (8th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.8 (1st in league) Mavericks 109.6 (8th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.6 (6th in league) Mavericks 108.0 (15th in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Mavericks Jason Kidd, Jose Barea, Antoine Wright, Dirk Nowitzki, Eric “worst contract in the NBA” Dampier

Matadors, baby!!! My alma mater, Cal State Northridge, made the NCAA Tournament. And it is a great story — on Jan. 26 this team was 7-10, (4-5 in conference) when it’s leading scorer got kicked off the team for being a complete idiot. A few weeks later, the team’s point guard was in a car accident that gave him internal injuries and knocked him out for the season. I and a lot of fans had started to write the season off.

But they rallied around Rodrigue Mels, who after a year and a half of uninspired basketball took over the team and started being efficient ad hitting Kobeesque crazy shots. Combine that with a style good for a smallish underdog team — aggressive gambling defense and a shoot first and ask questions later offense — and they got hot. They won the Big West then the two games they needed in the Big West Tournament. This means I’m buying more Northridge gear to wear this week.

The Lakers coming in: One reason the Lakers offense is so good is it gets shots close to the basket. Against the Spurs, the Lakers were 22 of 39 (56%) in the paint. Gasol was 8 of 11. We all see the Lakers offense struggle some when they get away from going inside (or it is taken away from them) and it is because they just become a less efficient offense — when the ball goes inside the Lakers score a high percentage.

A sign of where Lamar Odom’s head is. Or isn’t. In March, he is 5 of 15 from the free throw line.

The Mavericks Coming In: The Mavericks are facing some injury issues, particularly at the three, where Josh Howard and Devean George are out.

Dallas is 7-3 in their last 10 games, the same record as the Lakers, and they are playing a little desperate. Dallas needs these wins – as the 8 seed they would get the Lakers in the first round, but they are only a game and a half our of the division lead and a top-4 seed with home court. And a better first-round matchup. It will not be easy, however, 11 of their remaining 17 games are against teams over .500, and the Mavs have not been a great road team this year. (The remaining Lakers opponents, by the way, have an average winning percentage of .460.)

How are the Mavs getting geared up for the playoffs? I asked Rob of Two Man Game for his thoughts:

I’m not sure that the Mavs’ recent approach is fundamentally different than it has been all season long. They still live and die by jumpshots, which affects their ability to play on both ends. When the shooters disappear, the Mavs’ defensive focus goes with them and things go from bad to worse. So when the Mavs are playing “well,” it typically means that they are uncharacteristically attacking the basket or the shots are falling. When that confidence builds up on the offensive end, this Maverick team really steps it up defensively. The rotations are more crisp, there aren’t as many long rebounds to jump-start opponents’ fast breaks, and the intensity on the glass seems to improve. So it’s not so much that the Mavs are gearing up for the postseason as it is that they’ve enjoyed some good offensive nights recently.

There is one noted area of improvement: in recent wins over Portland and Phoenix, the Mavs have shown more guts than they have all season. The loss to Golden State makes those games seem like distant memories, but it’d be a shame to discount two hard-fought wins. If the Mavs can somehow steal a win in L.A., I’d still consider the trip to be an incredible success. Even showing some defensive progress would be nice, but by now I know better; this team is what it is defensively. I’ll settle for a gutsy, close victory over a true contender, and that type of game will do more for the Mavs than a decisive victory either way.

Long term, the Mavs are at a crossroads, and it will be interesting to see how they handle it. Is this a team that, as owner Mark Cuban believes, is one Gasol-like trade away from contending again? Or is it time to blow it all up and start to rebuild? The Jason Kidd contract comes off the books this summer and the first-reaction thought is to let him walk. But the Mavs are already over the cap and pushing the tax for next year without him. Can they really get a better PG for the mid-level? The position they really need to improve is the three, do they try to go that way with a trade and bring back Kidd cheaply to run the show for a better roster?

Again, thoughts from Rob:

Obviously it depends on how big the ‘piece’ is. Any significant Mavs’ move is either going to come via trade in 2009-2010 or 2010 free agency. The 2010 angle seems nearly impossible without some serious cap maneuvering, so I consider it to have a pretty huge asterisk.

The current team has some glaring holes (shooting guard and center, perimeter defense), and unless the additions specifically address those weaknesses it’s hard to see this team becoming a legitimate contender once again. That said, the Mavs don’t need Dwyane Wade to jump into the top tier (although it wouldn’t hurt, that’s for sure). Even one of the 2010 free agents lingering just outside the spotlight could make a huge difference (paging Joe Johnson), provided they occupy one of those problem positions. So in short, I think it’s true. If the Mavs could add a good to great player without giving much up, it could definitely thrust them into contention.

To say that Mavs fans are conflicted wouldn’t cover the half of it. It’s easy to see that the Mavs are aging by the day, and many have already grown impatient with second-tier status. Whether that impatience translates to a desire to blow it up and start over seems to change by the game. If at the heart of the issue is ‘Can the Mavs become elite once again with this group?’, then smaller issues like Josh Howard’s tenuous place on the team and whether it’s fair to give up on Dirk serve as both clarification and complication. It’s not an easy situation to sort through, and the fans are feeling that. Generally speaking, though, I think most of the fans are content to stay with Dirk, trade Josh, and play the 2010 market.

Keys To The Game: Beware of the Ides of March. The Lakers just seem to have the Mavs number, having beaten then five straight times. That includes two wins this season, both by seven points. But the Mavs are a desperate team with a leader who is playing well, this is not going to be an easy game.

One of the key reasons is that the Lakers do a good job on Dirk — he has shot just 12 of 32 in the first two meetings this year against the Lakers. In those games, Gasol was on him most of the time because Bynum was in on Dampier. Tonight things will go to Lamar Odom, who also is long and has some success against Dirk. If that doesn’t work, the Lakers can go with DJ Mbenga on Dampier and move Gasol back over to the four. Nowitzk has been playing well of late, scoring 30 a game the last eight games shooting 51%, but the key is not to let him get too many shots in the paint, make him shoot contested jumpers. If the Lakers can continue to hold him in check it could be a long night for the Mavs.

If the Mavs get into the paint, it is on penetration, they rarely have post plays set up. Dirk likes the ball at the elbow, and they run a lot of pick-and-pop with Kidd or with Terry off the bench (but he often closes out games. The Lakers have to defend that well.

The Lakers must close out on shooters. Must. Close. Out. This is not a great team to play pack-the-paint against.

The Mavs struggle to match up in man-to-man with the Lakers, and in a game I caught some of the other night they went to a lot of zone. I expect the Lakers will see a fair amount of that tonight.

Where you can watch: 12:30 start at Staples, showing on ABC. After reading the comments from the last post, I know you’ll all tune in early to watch that ABC Studio show.

By the way, I am at today’s game, so expect more comments and twitters from me than usual.