Records: Lakers 9-5 (5th in West), Mavericks 8-5 (7th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.2 (12th in NBA), Mavericks 101.8 (18th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 98.9 (6th in NBA), Mavericks 96.8 (3rd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Mavericks: Jason Kidd, Delonte West, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Brendan Hawyood
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake and Derrick Caracter (both out); Mavericks: none
The Lakers Coming in: I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: the Lakers are the type of team where depending on whether or not the team wins is what drives the narrative. After every W, the Lakers look like a team that can put it together with a formula of Kobe scoring, their bigs controlling the paint, and one or more role players stepping up to be a difference maker. After every loss, the conversation shifts to Kobe’s shot selection and volume, how that impacts the play of his teammates (especially Pau and Andrew), and whether or not the coach has a handle on his team.
Both story-lines have truth in them but neither is as clear cut as it seems and we’ve seen the epitome of that in the past week where the Lakers went 4 and 1. In the wins, the Lakers played mostly team ball but rode a hot Kobe (and strong defense) to wins. The bigs carried their end and some strong play from Barnes and Blake helped produce the W. In the loss, Kobe again went off but his mates looked disinterested at times and that leads to comments about whether or not the coach has a grip on his superstar or if that superstar can seen the forest through the trees (while the team’s defense and lack of rebounding were largely ignored to instead focus on those sexier story-lines).
In the end, I prefer to think that, like tonight’s opponent, the Lakers are a work in progress that needs more of the season to truly find their identity as a team. They’re even more top heavy than in season’s past and that means an off game by one or more of the big three makes a W more unlikely. The bench, meanwhile, has some talent but the roles aren’t yet fully defined and injuries to key contributors to that group haven’t allowed a real chemistry to develop at this early stage. Add it all up and the margin of error on any given night is as thin as it’s been in any competitive season since 2003 which leaves nearly everyone a bit on edge. I think it will get better but time will reveal if that’s accurate.
The Mavericks Coming in: The Mavs are a definite work in progress but have rebounded from a slow start to get (somewhat) back on track. After losing their first three games of the season, they’ve won eight of ten by feasting on teams that championship teams are supposed to. This has led to a bump in their statistical profile as they’ve racked up big wins against the Kings (99-60) and the Bucks (102-76), while also putting up double digit wins against the Hornets and Pistons. Again, this is not a murderer’s row of opponents but the schedule is what it is and I can guarantee if they’d lost to these teams the questions about whether or not this team is any good at all would be tossed around.
But while these wins have quieted some of the critics, real questions do remain. The Mavs lost Tyson Chandler and JJ Barrea – both, vital contributors to their championship – to free agency and and also lost Caron Butler (a key to their early season success last year). They’ve replaced these players with names we all recognize – Lamar Odom, Vince Carter, and Delonte West – but it remains to be seen if those three can reproduce the magic and chemistry that their predecessors produced in last year’s run to the title.
Speaking of Odom, I’d be remiss if I at least didn’t touch on the former Laker that is so missed by so many. His campaign has been mostly miserable so far, though he’s had some better games in the past couple weeks. After first joining the Mavs he was distant and out of place as criticism about his conditioning and mental preparedness were leveled by his coach. It’s since come out that he went so far as considering taking a year off after another trying summer where tragedy and then attempted trades left him feeling neither relaxed nor wanted. It’s hard to know how long his funk will last or if he’ll ever truly find his game in Dallas but I have my doubts on both counts. Not because Odom is suddenly some broken player or that his regression is a falling back to earth of numbers that were career bests last year but because I wonder if Odom really fits into what Dallas does on both sides of the ball. Odom’s best working as a leader and grew into that role in LA after many up and down years where it was only he and Kobe and Phil that were the constants. After the the emergence of Bynum and then that same season the Gasol trade, Odom found his niche as the player that could do it all while filling in all the gaps on a roster that offered him that flexibility. Meanwhile, with this Dallas group, the leadership is covered with Kidd, Dirk, and Terry and the jack of all trades style he’s played while working off of other star players is less available due to the presence of a similar player (Marion) and the more rigid confines of a roster that’s much more specialized. Does this mean that Odom can’t find a role? Of course not – he’s much too talented to write off. That said, in a shortened season with little security beyond this year, the man that wears his emotions on his sleeve and has the game that thrives off his connection to his mates may not get to that point with this team.
Mavericks Blogs: I love the work that Rob Mahoney and crew do at The Two Man Game. That site is well worth your time.
Keys to game: I could go on and on about X’s and O’s here (as I love to do) but the biggest factor in this game will be revenge. The Lakers want it and the Mavs want to bury it like they did all those jumpers last May.
This is the first meeting since the Lakers were dispatched like an injured thoroughbred at the hands of the Mavericks last spring. The fact that the Mavs went on to claim the championship only enhances those bitter feelings (Some would argue losing to the eventual champ provides some solace, but do you think Kobe feels that way? Fisher? Gasol? Bynum? Me neither.) So the Lakers will be looking to right the wrongs of last season even though tonight’s result won’t erase those losses.
With that in mind, so much of tonight will come down to energy and focus. It will come down to keeping a level head while giving everything you have inside to win. Often times is easy to lose the needed steadiness it takes to compete at this level when emotions run high and this is what the Lakers will be up against tonight. They badly want to beat the Mavs; they probably want to humiliate them. Staying calm in the face of that desire will be key. Having Odom in the enemy garb only complicates this.
Of course, doing actual basketball things well will matter too. Gasol will get a steady diet of Dirk tonight and the Spaniard will need to have his legs under him to chase around screens and contest jumpers. Dirk’s unconventional game doesn’t lead to having a plan on any given possession, so Gasol will simply need to play him straight up but with a step into him to better contest the J and encourage the drive a bit more. On the other end, Pau can’t let Dirk off easy by settling for the jumper every time down. Gasol’s been much more perimeter oriented of late and that’s mostly by design in order to free up Kobe’s work in the mid post and Bynum’s at the deep block. However, moving Pau to his preferred left block to make Dirk defend can also be designed and I hope to see some of that tonight. Pau can still work over his Euro counterpart in that area of the floor and the Lakers would be wise to let him give it a go.
Kobe’s role in this is also key, of course. He’s been feeling his offense lately and that will of course lead to him attacking. But the bigger question is who will Kobe be going after. The Mavs are likely to start Delonte West at SG but he’s too small to guard Kobe so that leaves Kidd or Marion. Either offer an interesting match up as Kidd will be better chasing Kobe off picks while Marion offers the size to disrupt Kobe’s post ups and wing isolations. In any event, the Mavs are likely to cross match on D and that could give the Lakers a chance to do some damage in early offense should they actually push the ball and try to initiate their sets early in the clock. Because while the Mavs retreat and seek out their man, the Lakers can run the ball, have their bigs go to the front of the rim and set up shop to get the types of easy baskets that can make half court match ups a moot point.
The Last key I’ll be looking at is how much zone the Mavs play. The Lakers haven’t seen much of this D this season but in year’s past it befuddled them. I’d bet that the Mavs want to see if the Lakers can hit enough jumpers to make them stop sitting in Kobe, Bynum, and Pau’s laps in the low and shallow post by throwing the zone at them early in the game. This could be a contest where Kapono and Murphy end up needing to be the role players that make a difference.
Where you can watch: (A hopeful) 7:30 start time on TNT. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710AM.