Game 1’s don’t seem to agree with the Lakers so far these playoffs. Just as with the Hornets series, the Lakers find themselves trailing after the first contest, with the Mavs winning 96-94 and stealing away home court in a game with so many twists and turns it should have been played on Lombard St. in San Francisco.
The game started with the Mavs doing what they do best, knocking down jumpers. They isolated Dirk on the left side of the floor (just as Phillip said they would) and the big German went to work, canning all variety of jumpers against whatever defense the Lakers threw at him. And when Dirk wasn’t hitting jumpers, the pick and roll actions that Dallas used with him was opening up the weak side of the floor when defenders would rotate to Dirk and leave their man open to do so. Dallas quickly recognized this Laker tactic and subbed out their non-shooters (Stevenson and Marion) for guys that were threats to make shots and space the floor (Terry and Peja) in order to fully capitalize against this strategy. And when those guys came in, they too joined the shot making parade to make L.A. pay.
Meanwhile, the Lakers hung tough through aggressive play from Kobe Bryant. Seeing an advantage against Stevenson early, Kobe was quick to look for his own offense and fired away with pretty good results. His jumper was falling (for the most part) and his activity set the tone early for his team. When Kobe wasn’t shooting however, Gasol was trying to match Dirk bucket for bucket and doing a decent job of doing so. The big Spaniard started out with a driving lay in, then hit a nice turn around after a strong post up, and finished off his brief flurry with a corner J that looked as sweet as the ones he knocked down all year long.
What started as a back and forth affair though, soon became the Lakers game to control. Near the end of the first half, the Lakers turned some silly fouls by the Mavs into made FT’s and put the Mavs behind the 8 ball. Jason Terry’s awful foul on a Lamar Odom half court heave gave the Lakers an 8 point cushion and then a Dirk technical foul after the last FT sent Kobe to the line to push the margin to 9.
When the 3rd quarter started, the Lakers took and even tighter grasp on the game by turning the the Mavs over multiple times and turning those steals into easy baskets. Soon enough, the Lakers found themselves up by 16 and the Mavs looked to be on their last legs. Before the priests could be called in to give Dallas their last rites however, a furious come back began. Bad shots and poor all around decision making led to easy Dallas baskets. Phil decided to let the group try to figure it out on their own (as is his m.o.) but sadly they never did. In the blink of an eye, the Laker lead was cut to three and the game would be a dog fight until the very end.
And down the stretch of a close game, the Lakers – as has been all to frequent this year – couldn’t seal the deal. The starters did a good enough job of matching baskets with the Mavs but the shots they were getting became overly dependent on Kobe creating in isolation and less to do with any semblance of an offense being run. Even when the Lakers tried to go inside (which wasn’t nearly enough) the spacing was bad and either turnovers or bad shots against the shot clock resulted. Meanwhile the Mavs just kept plugging away and running their sets. Dirk would hit a jumper or the ball would swing from one side of the court to other, quickly go inside, and the Mavs would get any easy basket.
In the closing minutes, the Lakers tried to go to what had worked the entire game (Kobe making shots) but on one possession a jumper went woefully long and on another (with under 30 seconds to go) Kobe drove to the paint and got caught in the air with no passing angle and committed a turnover. After the timeout and the Mavs only down by a single point, they ran an inbound play to get the ball to Dirk only Gasol fouled him to put him on the line. After sinking both freebies, the Lakers ran a hand-off play for Kobe but he got held/tripped up coming off the screen and the Lakers committed another turnover. (And yes, it looked like a foul. But, for the 100th time, if you allow the game to be that close at the end – as the Lakers did – you have to live with a missed call. The Lakers had many chances for the game to not come down to a single possession and didn’t do enough in those chances. I can understand the importance of that one call, but I also understand the importance of a 16-4 Dallas run in the 3rd quarter.) After more FT’s by the Mavs (Kidd sunk 1 of 2), the Lakers had one last chance but Kobe missed a great look at a three pointer and the Mavs held on.
And really, that’s the story to this game: the Mavs held on. When they were down big, the Lakers allowed them to get back in the game quickly enough that it was like that big lead never happened. With the game close, the Mavs found ways to make shots and get stops to ensure that in the closing minutes they’d have a chance to get the ball to their closer and he delivered. It’s not that Kobe couldn’t match Dirk (because for the most part he did) but instead it was about the Lakers over-reliance on Kobe making those shots for them to win this game. And when you rely on one player in isolation the way the Lakers did, sometimes the shots just won’t fall. The Mavs proved as much by moving the ball in and out of Nowitzki’s hands in those final minutes to both get him good looks but also set up other players. The Lakers never adjusted and it hurt them in the end.
If the Lakers would have shown more discipline by going to the post more often to both Gasol and Bynum (especially when Drew was playing with the 2nd unit) the Lakers likely would have gotten better possessions and not taken so many bad jumpers that fueled the Mavs comeback. But, alas, that’s not the way the game unfolded. If there’s one lesson from this game it’s that the Lakers didn’t salt away the game when they had the chance. I don’t know if they expected the Mavs to fold or if their lack of patience simply yielded the worst results possible but it all ended up leading to the same conclusion. The Mavs fought their way back and the Lakers left the door open for them to do so. At this point, they can either sulk about it or come back the next game and not make the same mistake.
And in the end, I expect the latter. By now, the Lakers understand that the Mavericks are not a team that will go quietly into the night. In order to beat them, the execution must be game long not just something that comes and goes. Each possession needs to be valued or this team can and will take advantage of the mishaps. Falling behind in a series is a tough way to learn this lesson but hopefully now it sticks. The Lakers will have their chance to prove that they know better on Wednesday.