Records: Lakers 27-29 (9th in the West), Mavericks 25-29 (10th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.1 (8th in the NBA), Mavericks 102.9 (13th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.3 (15th in the NBA), Mavericks 103.9 (19th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Mavericks: Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Bernard James
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Mavericks: Chris Kaman (out)
Lakers Coming in: The Lakers are openly talking about how every game in front of them is treated like a playoff game. Their preparation is greater, their focus is singular, and they’re trying to bring a level of effort that mimics that of the second season. Using this model, they’ve won 7 of their last 10 games and look good on both sides of the ball. So, on the collective front, things are looking up.
On an individual level, there are things to be happy about as well. Dwight Howard is looking as good as he has all season. He’s moving well, is more active on both ends of the floor, and seems mentally engaged. And while he’s admitted that he’s still not in the type of shape he’d like to be in, it’s telling that the conversation has shifted from where he’s at from a health standpoint to where he’s at from a conditioning one. The latter can be managed through minutes and substitution patterns while the latter was always a variable that seemed completely out of anyone’s control. If his biggest issue for the remainder of the season is finding his wind, the Lakers will be much better down the stretch than they have been at any point this year.
But while Dwight’s health is seemingly starting to improve, Steve Nash has suffered a bit of a setback with his. Against Portland, Nash tweaked his back early in the game and it affected him the rest of the contest (if you’re looking for a reason why all those jumpers were short, there you go). He was limited in Saturday’s practice, but does expect to play against the Mavs. That said, it will be interesting to see if he’s fully over this issue. Nash has dealt with back issues for several years now and through minutes and treatments has always found a way to manage. The hope is that that trend continues now as the Lakers can ill afford to have him hampered going into these final twenty-some odd games.
Mavericks Coming in: Like the Lakers, the Mavs are trying to make a push to get back to the post-season. They currently sit only a game back of the Lakers and are even in the loss column. And, like the Lakers, the Mavs are playing some good ball lately in their own attempt to climb out of the hole they’ve dug throughout the season. They’ve won 3 in a row and 5 of their last 6, with three of those wins coming by blowout.
In that stretch they’re getting very good contributions from multiple players and have been showing off their balance. Five players are scoring in double figures in this stretch, led by Dirk’s 18.2 points per game and as a team they’re shooting the ball very well from the field (46.9%) and from behind the arc (43.1%). Combine that with good ball movement (26 assists per game) and few turnovers (10.7), and the Mavs have been performing very well on offense and really making teams defend the entire floor.
All of that said, the Mavs haven’t played the stiffest competition lately and it remains to be seen if this recent stretch is their new norm or simply their schedule lightening up right when they need it to. Of course, you can only play the teams in front of you (it’s not like the Lakers have been knocking off the league’s elite lately) and the Mavs deserve credit for getting those wins. However, down the stretch of the season, they’ll need to keep up this level of play even when the opponents get tougher (just as the Lakers will).
Keys to the game: This game will be the rubber match between these two teams and it will be interesting to see how things shake out in a game that likely won’t resemble the others simply due to the personnel on the floor. Due to injuries, Nash and Steve Blake both missed the last game between these two, Chris Kaman won’t play tonight, and Dirk will play in his first game of the three in this contest.
Dirk’s presence is key, of course, as he’s the key to the Mavs attack as a floor spacer and offensive centerpiece. When he’s on the floor, the Mavs must be defended differently and it will be up to the Lakers to find a match up that suits them to try and slow down the future hall of famer. My bet is that Ron starts out on Dirk to see if Ron’s physical style and quick hands can disrupt what the big German likes to do on offense. If Ron can force Dirk into tough shots while not fouling, the Lakers will likely stick with that match up though I wouldn’t doubt we also see Earl Clark get a turn or two as well. Whoever guards Dirk, though, must try to force him to his left hand and then play him for his pull up jumper all while funneling him towards help. Dirk is a notoriously low turnover player so you can’t expect him to make mistakes with the ball, but you can make his life difficult by moving him into spots where his reads aren’t as easy.
With Nash back in the fold, look for the Lakers to continue to try and run the P&R to good effectiveness and put the Mavs in position to try and defend both he and Dwight when synched up. Dwight’s hard rolls to the hoop mixed with Nash’s ability to make the right read has the chance to frustrate a Mavs team that isn’t exactly loaded with top end defenders. Key to running this action will be how well rookie Bernard James deals with his hedge and recover responsibilities. James has had some impressive defensive outings this year (he blocked 7 shots against the Hornets in the Mavs’ last game), but protecting the rim is quite a different task than slowing confronting Nash as he turns the corner and then recovering back to the paint to tussle with Dwight Howard. If James is exposed, look for Elton Brand and Brandan Wright to come in and try to do better (and both have against the Lakers this year), but whoever is playing C for the Mavs will have to contend with this action over and over again — or at least until they prove they can slow it down.
The other offensive key is Kobe. To put it bluntly, there are few players Kobe loves to try and attack more than O.J. Mayo. I’m sure since the Mayo’s days as a Trojan at USC, Kobe has liked to try and punish him whenever they’ve shared the floor and it will be interesting to see if, after scoring 40 points just two days ago, Kobe is aggressive again today. Whether he’s looking to shoot or pass isn’t necessarily as important as where Kobe on the floor Kobe operates. Kobe has a size advantage against Mayo and should be able to do damage if isolated there. If Kobe is on the weak side when Nash and Dwight run the P&R, we’ll see if the Mavs decide to help off him to break up Dwight’s dive or if they help off the strong side wings (Clark and Ron) to disrupt the action. If they help off Kobe, look for him to get good looks when the ball rotates his way. If they help off Clark/Ron, they’ll get the good looks and they must be patient in making the right read — either a shot for themselves or a quick entry to Dwight after he turns his dive into a post up.
Defensively, due the Mavs’ balance, the Lakers must really be on top of their game and be ready to rotate all over the floor. I’ve already mentioned Dirk, but Mayo, Collison, Marion, and Vince Carter are all playing very well on offense and it will take a team effort to ensure that they all don’t continue their recent solid stretches. Collison and Marion must be kept out of the open court and not allowed to get easy baskets in transition. Both are more than happy to run after misses and makes and both must be guarded early in possessions to ensure they don’t get those looks. Mayo, meanwhile, is having his best offensive season and is a real threat. In a way, the Mavs treat him as a guard version of Dirk, running him off screens and isolating him all over the floor. Kobe will need to have his head on a swivel as he’ll be run off picks before and after Mayo has the ball and will need to defend with purpose. Carter is the wild card here and the Laker reserves can’t let him go off for a big number today. He’s more than capable of hitting the three ball and then using the threat of that shot to get into the lane and finish. His man must be ready to run him off the three point line with the rest of the team ready to help on his drives.
This is an early game for the Lakers but they can’t let the start time throw them off. They must bring energy and focus from the outset and then carry it through the end of the contest. Both teams see this as a must win and you better believe the Mavs will be ready on their home court. The Lakers need to be as well.
Where you can watch: 10:00am start time on ABC. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.