Records: Lakers 38-36 (9th in the West), Mavericks 36-37 (10th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.5 (8th in the NBA), Mavericks 103.6 (T 12th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.8 (18th in the NBA), Mavericks 104.1 (20th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Mavericks: Mike James, OJ Mayo, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Elton Brand
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Nash (out), Metta World Peace (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Mavericks: Rodrigue Beaubois (out), OJ Mayo (probable)
Mavericks Blogs: Check out The Two Man Game for very good analysis on this team.
Keys to game: Expect a buzz in the crowd tonight with Shaq’s jersey set to be retired and this game meaning so much to both teams in terms of the playoff chase. The Lakers and Mavs are currently 9th and 10th in the conference, both chasing the suddenly red hot Jazz for the final spot in the tournament. The Mavs are also trying to get back to .500, a milestone that will allow them to shave the gloriously hideous beards they decided to grow until they got back to an even record. So lots on the line (both trivial and not so much) in this game.
With all that said, a major key to this game will simply be playing with the requisite focus and energy. The Lakers have long been in “playoff mode”, but have suffered some setbacks in intensity and focus in the past couple of weeks. Tonight, they’ll need to recover the form they showed in the final three quarters of the Kings game, but put it forth for the entire contest. Every loose ball needs to be theirs; every hustle play needs to be made by them. That’s a bit of an exaggeration of course, but this game must feel that way for them to win.
From an execution standpoint, the Lakers are going to need to lean heavily on Kobe, Dwight, and Pau to play multiple roles. Kobe will need to be both a scorer and a distributor. With Steve Nash sitting this game out, Kobe will be the primary ball handler in the P&R and will need to balance his shot taking and distributing, getting his mates involved by picking them out for good shots. If Kobe can get Dwight the ball on the move the rim early in the game, it could go a long way in setting the tone of the offense by establishing the paint and forcing the Mavs to sink below the foul line defensively. This can open up the rest of the team’s perimeter game with Meeks and Blake benefitting from open shots when the D is forced to rotate.
Speaking of Dwight, he’ll need to be a force inside on both sides of the floor. The Mavs aren’t a great inside team, but they can threaten the paint via penetration out of isolations and in the P&R. If Dwight can shut those plays down, the Lakers can pressure the wings defensively and try to take away the jumpers that fuel their attack. If Dwight can block and alter shots inside, it can also lead to transition chances where he can run the floor and try to carve out early post position against Brand and Kaman. If Dwight can get some deep post touches, he should not only get some easy baskets but also draw plenty of fouls (and trips to the FT line) which can help sustain the Lakers’ offense if their shots aren’t falling.
As for Pau, he’ll have the most important role of the night because he’ll need to be a scorer, a facilitator, and a defender. He’ll likely be used as a finisher in the post and in the P&R, where he’ll need to be assertive in looking for his own shot to keep the defense honest. He’ll also serve as a passer from the elbow in the Lakers’ HORNS sets, picking out Dwight, Kobe and the shooters for open shots coming off various screen actions. But his most important role will be as a defender against Dirk all over the floor. The big German has found his game in the past few weeks, resembling the player who put the Mavs on his back en route to the 2011 title. He’s making his jumper, is posting up more, and is even putting the ball on the floor when his man crowds him. Pau will have his hands full, but if he can even slightly slow Dirk down, it will go a long way towards winning this game.
As for the rest of the team, they’ll need to think defense first while still hitting enough shots to not be a liability on the other end. One match up I’ll be watching closely is at shooting guard. Meeks guarding Mayo is a big key to this game with the results likely tilting the contest in the victor’s favor. If Mayo is hitting shots and attacking Meeks with good success, the Lakers’ defense will suffer as rotate and show help. That will open up shots for Dirk, Marion, and Brand — shots they can surely knock down. But if Mayo struggles, it will limit one of the Mavs’ more important offensive performers and have them searching for points from players who are less capable of providing them.
I really can’t stress how important this game is. With only 8 games left in the Lakers’ season, they need to win one more game than the Jazz do down the stretch and that makes every game one that needs to be one just to keep them moving in the right direction. The fact that they can also push the Mavs a game further back in the standings makes it even more valuable.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.