Records: Lakers 53-20 (2nd in West), Mavericks 53-21 (3rd in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.8 (2nd in NBA), Mavericks 110.0 (8th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.6 (7th in NBA), Mavericks 105.2 (10th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Mavericks: Jason Kidd, Rodrigue Beaubois, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler
Injuries: Lakers: Devin Ebanks & Theo Ratliff (out); Mavericks: Caron Butler & Dominique Jones (out), Corey Brewer (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: What else can really be said at this point? The Lakers are rolling, they’re succeeding with defense, and with each passing game they seem to be inching closer to the level they’d like to be at for another post season run.
Sure, there’s a chance they catch the Spurs for the #1 seed in the West and there’s still a chance that they could pass the Bulls for the #2 seed for the playoffs overall. That said, I stick with what I’ve been saying for some time: it’s more important that the Lakers be playing their best ball than play in a specific arena. Said another way, the Lakers play what I like to call a mobile game. They’re not a shooting team that is boosted by playing on their home court. They don’t rely on a set of streaky players that need to be at home to consistently play their best. The Lakers’ size, Kobe, and a playoff tested roster can win anywhere when playing at their top guear and venue isn’t the biggest priority. Still though, I’d be lying if I said I’d rather them play a game 7 on the road rather than at home. So, I won’t be turning away wins or a shot at the number 1 seed.
As for the bottom of the playoff draw, I’ve never been a proponent of seeking out a specifc foe and thus advocating a loss in order to draw a specific path for advancement. First of all, the standings at the bottom of the West are too tight to accurately predict and second of all I want the momentum to continue progressing. A loss for the sake of facing a specific opponent may seem logical, but I’d rather the team win as many games as possible and let the chips fall where they may. For all the talk of the Lakers wanting to avoid a specific team, I think it’s more logical to look at this from the perspective of potential opponents. I mean, who really wants to play the Lakers right now?
The Mavericks Coming in: Because we’ve been focused on how well the Lakers have been playing, you may not have noticed that the Mavs have reeled off 5 straight wins of their own. Granted the competition wasn’t that tough but at this point in the year a win against any opponent is key as the race for seeding has taken on extra importance. With those wins, the Mavs have been able to stay only a half game behind the Lakers with only one more loss than our guys. Simply put, they’re not going away and they continue to play strong ball.
And as it’s been all year they’re carried by a veteran crew that just knows how to win games. Dirk is again an MVP candidate that puts up numbers extrememly efficiently. Kidd and Terry provide steady play that only picks up with the game on the line. Marion and Chandler are working well in the paint as rebounders and scorers when the D’s attention is too perimeter focused. And they offer a variety of role players (Cardinal, Beaubois, Peja, Haywood, Barea) that each bring a different dimension to capitalize on the weaknesses of any given opponent. This is just a well constructed team that should not be discounted.
Keys to game: It was only 2 weeks ago that these teams played last. In that game, the Lakers bigs (especially Andrew Bynum) proved to be the difference as the Lakers edged the Mavs by 5 points and pulled even with the Mavs in the win column. Since that game, the Lakers have passed the Mavs to take sole control of the West’s 2nd seed but if they want to keep it that way (the Lakers are up by only a half a game with the same number of wins and only one fewer loss) they’ll need a similar effort from their bigs tonight.
And with that in mind, I’m going to go away from the individual matchups for once and try to zero in on a few themes that I think will really be key tonight. I mean, we all know the names at this point – Dirk, Kobe, Pau, Terry – and surely the individual match ups those players face and how efficiently they go about their business will matter. But what I’m really looking at tonight are the themes of a game. Those include:
An inside/out offense: Dallas has one reliable interior defender in Tyson Chandler. If he picks up fouls or can’t contain Andrew Bynum, this game will tilt heavily in the Lakers’ favor. The ball must go inside early and often to allow the Lakers to set up the tempo of the game and play to their strengths. Remember too that Chandler is quick to show help to his mates while then trying to recover to the glass to rebound. I’d love to see the Lakers attack the paint with players other than Bynum so that Drew can take advantage of a vacated Chandler to pick up extra possessions.
Rebounding: The Lakers must control their own defensive glass and finish defensive possessions by securing the ball. In the last game Dallas secured 15 offensive rebounds. Dallas is the 8th most efficient scoring team in the league and extra possessions only give Dirk, Terry, and the rest of their scorers another chance to hurt the Lakers. Shawn Marion’s activity was especially damaging as his 7 offensive rebounds were a game high. He needs to be boxed out and Ron/LO can’t be caught staring at other offensive threats when they need to be boxing out and attacking the glass.
Mid-range jumpshooting: You’d be hard pressed to find another team that shoots the mid-range jumper as well as the Mavs. Dirk and Terry are both excellent shooters and both can get their shots in a variety of ways – in isolation, off screens, and in P&R actions. The Lakers need to stick to their normal defensive scheme but be more active in contesting these shots than they are vs. other opponents. Bynum, Gasol, and Odom will need to play the P&R well by closing off the paint but still providing a contest of these shots of ball handlers turn the corner looking to shoot in rhythm. This game can turn if one of Dirk or Terry get hot, so the Lakers need to zero in on these guys.
Bench play: The big story going into this game will be the supposed battle between Terry and Odom as they’re the leading candidates for 6th man of the year. But it will be the play of Blake, Brown, and Barnes that I’m really focusing on. Barnes’ activity on D and on the glass could be especially troubling for the Mavs as they don’t have an active wing in his mold that can really stay with him in all aspects of the game. Barnes will likely find himself matched up with Peja a lot, so I’d love to see Matt hit the glass hard and run the lane in hopes of getting a couple of easy baskets in transition. As for Brown and Blake, their defense will be key when matching up with Terry. They can not leave him on screens and can’t be over eager to help teammates and abandon their responsibilities on JET. If history has proven anything, Jason Terry is a Laker killer and he needs to be accounted for at all times.
In the end, there may not be a more important regular season game down the stretch. It’s still very likely that the Lakers face this team in the playoffs and a win tonight can reiterate to the Mavs the challenge they’re up against. If the Lakers can effectively hit on three of the above keys, they have a good chance of winning.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm tip time on TNT. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.