With the Hornets vanquished and the Mavs on the horizon, we find ourselves waiting a few days before the Lakers return to action. So what better time to look forward, with nothing but time on our hands? With that, some random thoughts on what we’ve seen and learned from round one, how some of that may translate to round two, and some other thoughs on the series ahead…
*Much like the WCF vs. the Suns last season, the Hornets offered the Lakers a master’s class on pick and roll play. Unofficially, the Hornets ran their bread and butter set 150% of the time and severely tested the Lakers’ ability to cover one of the more bedeviling sets in basketball. By the end of the series the Lakers had cracked the Hornets’ code on this action, smothering Paul coming off the pick, collapsing the paint to limit big man touches, and leaving open Ariza and Belinelli to try and beat the Lakers from the wing. Both Phil and Kobe remarked post game that this allowed the Lakers to sharpen their coverage techniques with the implication being it would help them agaisnt the Mavs. While we’ll cover this in more detail in the coming days, this assertion may not actually be true. Paul and Kidd offer two different types of guards when running this set and the primary goal of the Mavs is usually to set up Dirk in isolations in pick and pop situations. Can the Lakers recover to Dirk without switching? Will there be an overcompensation to Dirk that opens up other very capable players? Only time will tell, but my mind is already trying to look at all the angles on this.
*Dallas’ bench is a much different beast than the one that the Lakers just faced. If you were to look at both the Mavs and Hornets reserves, the odds are you’d take 4 Mavericks before you even looked at the Hornets direction. Terry is one of the better bench performers in the entire league and after him Barea, Haywood, and Peja all offer more consitent play than Jack, Gray, or Willie Green. When you throw in Beaubois and Cardinal on the Mavs side, I might take the entirety of the Mavs bench before choosing anyone besides Jack from the Hornets. All of this is a long way of saying the Lakers reserves will be severely tested this series and which group plays better will likely be a major factor in who advances. If Blake, Barnes, Brown, and Odom can’t keep up with their counterparts it will throw off Phil’s rotations and create a domino effect that will be difficult to overcome. Needless to say, I’ll be watching intently when that 6-8 minute stretch from the end of the 1st quarter to the middle of hte 2nd quarter (as well as the same stretch from the end of the 3rd to the middle of the 4th) occurs every game.
*Speaking of benches, will Caron Butler be ready to play? He’s vocal about wanting to suit up and contribute but I have my doubts it will actually happen (and if it does happen that it will matter). Since that fateful season that he was a Laker, I’ve been a fan of Tuff Juice but a torn patellar tendon isn’t something folks normally effectively come back from in 5 months. We’ll see if he actually can advance past the non-contact phase of his rehab with enough time to actually play in this series, but I would think the Mavs are planning to face the Lakers without him.
*Beyond any X-factors or X’s and O’s, a major storyline of this series will be Kobe vs. Dirk. Both are undisputed Hall of Famers and while they will likely only guard each other when cross matching and defensive switches force it upon them, it’s an interesting “match up” nonetheless. Think about the top 5 to 10 players of the last 10-15 years. The names that immediately come to mind are Kobe, Duncan, Shaq, Garnett, Dirk, Kidd, Iverson and the newer age stars of Wade, LeBron, Durant, Paul, and Williams (maybe I’m missing one or two names). Besides LeBron and Wade (who have been in the East for their entire careers) and Shaq (who was a teammate of Kobe’s before going East himself), Dirk is the only guy on that list that Kobe’s never faced in the playoffs. Considering both players have been in the Western Conference for their entire careers, it’s kind of amazing that their teams have never faced off. Now, before both hang up their sneakers, we finally get to see it. As a fan of basketball, I’m excited.
*Tangential to the Kobe vs. Dirk match up is the fact that the Mavs have long been a team that Lakers fans have wanted to face in the playoffs. Maybe it’s the running “feud” between Phil and Mark Cuban, the fact that the Mavs have consistently identified the Spurs and Lakers as the teams to beat and have built their team to compete against, or that fans have always viewed the Mavs as a team that wilts in the post-season and have wanted the Lakers to inspire that in them for once. What ever the reason, that chance is now front and center. I must say, however, that this incarnation of the Mavs is one that I’ve respected since the season began. Before Dirk got hurt mid-year, the Mavs were right there with the Spurs at the top of the conference. With the addition of Marion and Chandler, they’ve gained some physical toughness while the past failures of their core players have surely added some mental toughness as well. No further proof of this is needed than how they bounced back from a crushing game 4 comeback by the Blazers to win the next two games (including a clincher on the road at the Rose Garden). They’re deep, seasoned, and hungry for more than they’ve achieved to this point. Ultimately, I don’t fear this team but I do see them as a legitimate challenger and one the Lakers will have to beat rather than just observe folding in front of them.
*Carrying those last two points one step further, there’s a definite sense of bad blood between these teams that should make this series a great one to watch as the intensity ratchets up a level from round 1. In the last Lakers/Mavs game Jason Terry pushed Steve Blake to the ground and all hell broke loose to the tune of 5 ejections and Matt Barnes getting suspended for an additional game. With a trip to the conference finals raising the stakes, I have a hard time believing the games won’t be even more sprited. Physically and mentally both sides will be tested and I’m going to enjoy seeing who rises to the challenge and who self destructs. Monday can’t get here fast enough.