The Lakers coming in: The Lakers announced that they waived Shawne Williams today, cutting ties with the veteran forward before his contract would have become fully guaranteed. Waiving Williams opens a roster spot, but don’t expect them to use it anytime soon. The Lakers have long preferred to carry 14 players on their roster as it allows for flexibility in picking up a free agent or in when making a two-for-one (or a three-for-two) trade.
Releasing Williams open up roughly 20 minutes of playing time a night and I’ll be interested in seeing who grabs those minutes. I think the hope amongst many fans is that Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman would get more time on the floor, but I have a feeling the player who sees the biggest bump in playing time will be Ryan Kelly. It’s Kelly whose skill set best mirrors what Williams was supposed to provide offensively and it’s Kelly has already seen a bump in his minutes lately while Kaman and Hill’s roles have either held steady or declined. Further, Mike D’Antoni is nothing if not consistent when it comes to his approach – he wants his offense to flow and provide the identity of his team and Kelly is a guy who best fits the mold of what the head coach wants in a power forward (of the remaining options on the roster).
The Mavs coming in: The Mavs are 4 games over .500 and are firmly in the hunt for one of the bottom playoff seeds in the West. They’ve split their last 6 games 3-3, but have had an interesting run of late by winning on the road while losing at home.
The Mavs are still led by Dirk Nowitzki who, much like the rest of his career, is having a very fine season. He’s complemented by new additions Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon in the back court, while having mainstays Shawn Marion and Vince Carter flanking him as other wing/forward options. Add to them a big man trio of Brandan Wright, Sammy Dalembert, and DeJuan Blair and the Mavs have a balanced roster that can score well in spurts, but can still struggle defensively.
Overall, however, the power of their offensive attack is enough to keep them afloat even in a competitive West. Ellis’ resurgence and return to a more attack oriented player who has turned down taking excessive shots from behind the arc is a major key to this. But so is Calderon’s set up ability as he’s a pass first player who also has a great ability to stretch the floor. And, of course, they still have Dirk who remains one of the best shooters in the league at any position.
Keys to the game: Despite the difference in talent between these two teams, the Lakers actually match up fairly well against the Mavs. The Mavs are clearly better at nearly every position, but when it comes right down to it, the Lakers have players who can at least attempt to guard the guy in front of them without them being at a distinct physical (size, strength) disadvantage.
The key match up of the night, for me at least, will be between Meeks and Ellis. Monta is having a very good season and will find ways to score the ball either off the dribble attacking the rim or pulling up for his mid-range jumper. Meeks, however, has an opportunity to make Ellis and gambling ways pay defensively if he’s able to cut well off the ball and slide into open space to hit his jumper. If the Lakers can keep this match up anywhere close to even, they’ll have a good chance in this game.
The other key for the Lakers will be whether Gasol can keep his current string of good games going. The Mavs have been alternating their starting Center lately, but if Blair starts next to Dirk, Gasol should get plenty of post chances against whoever guards him. Blair offers strength and a wide body, but he’s incredibly short for his position and Pau should be able to shoot over the top of him with his jumper and hook. The key for Pau is to do his work early in possessions and try to get to his spots on the floor before Blair can try bully him off it. If Pau goes up against Dirk, the plan should be mostly the same, though I’d like to see him work more off the dribble in order to get to his spots and set up moves going towards the basket.
Defensively, the Lakers will have their hands full, but that’s the truth most nights. Calderon is a great floor general and with Ellis next to him, expect both guards to run a lot of P&R with Dirk to force the Lakers into their rotations as the big German pops for his jumper while the guards look to turn the corner or step behind the pick to shoot uncontested jumpers. If the Lakers can steer the ball handler towards help while rotating from the weak side to cover Nowitzki, they can, hopefully, stay connected enough to the Mavs shooters to not allow them too many open shots.
The other key defensively will be how the Lakers close possessions. They need to rebound better. The Lakers’ bigs have, for years now, been notorious about not boxing out and instead moving towards the ball and trying to secure it with their length. Blair, Dalembert, and Marion will all chase the ball hard even when it’s out of their area so Gasol, Sacre, and Hill will need to mark their man and the wings/guards will need to collapse to the FT line area and gang rebound. The Mavs are too good an offense to give too many second chance opportunities to so the Lakers must do a good job of cleaning the glass.
Where you can watch: 5:30pm start on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.