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Records: Lakers: 40-23 (3rd in the West), Thunder: 46-17 (2nd in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 106.1 (11th in the NBA), Thunder: 109.8 (2nd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 104.3 (13th in the NBA), Thunder: 102.9 (9th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha
Injuries: Lakers: none; Thunder: none

The Lakers Coming In: With 96 minutes of ball remaining in a breakneck regular season, and just one day between the end of Game 66 and the beginning of the postseason, veteran playoff-bound squads – particularly those with a nicked-up superstar – are likely engaging in some late-stage R&R. Not in Lakerland, where the Purple and Gold – full complement of talent now in tow – are hustling to get back up to speed while locked in a tooth-and-nail, cross-hallway battle for playoff position and a division title.

After a seven-game absence, Kobe Bryant and his presumably less sore shin returned to action on Friday night in San Antonio. After a slow start in which he made just two of six shots, Kobe found his footing, finishing 7-of-12 from the field for 18 points in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, much of the remainder of the starting five – be it Pau Gasol (4-10 FG, 11 points in 30 minutes), Andrew Bynum (TWO rebounds, just days after grabbing 30 against the same squad) or Ramon Sessions (5 points on 2-of-9 in 24 minutes) – fell well short of the standards they’d set in the Mamba’s absence. With Tim Duncan and Tony Parker scoring an efficient 41 and Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Daniel Green and Gary Neal connecting on 80% (8-of-10) of their 3-point attempts, I’m not sure any team has the bullets in its gun to down the Spurs, but at this time of year, there’s really no excuse for putting forth that lackluster an effort on the boards and offering so little resistance in the midst of a third quarter blitz.

Looking forward, the Lakers welcome to Staples an OKC squad that’s given them fits in both meetings this season – running the Lakers ragged in a 15-point home win on February 23, then overcoming a brutal start in L.A. on March 29 and riding Russ Westbrook’s 36 to a nine-point win on the Lakers’ home floor.

The Thunder Coming In: The Thunder enter Sunday’s showdown in a situation similar to that of Lakers, trailing San Antonio by one-half game for the West’s top spot. Though they’ve won four of five, OKC is hardly firing on all cylinders. Since April 1, they’ve not only failed (in five opportunities) to notch a victory against playoff-bound opposition, but have fallen short of the 100-mark on each occasion and only once connected on better than 45% of their field goal (45.2% v. Memphis on 4/2) and 32% of their 3-point attempts (46.2% on 4/11 v. Clippers).

Rightfully, all eyes with be on OKC’s dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but it’s the remainder of the roster, and their ability to neutralize the Lakers trio of stars. In the paint, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins (averaging 17 points, 19.5 rebounds and 5 blocks in the previous two meetings), with glue guy extraordinaire Nick Collison off the bench, will lock horns with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, whom they’ve “held” to a combined 37 points and 20 rebounds per game.

Meanwhile, in the backcourt, Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden will look to extend Kobe’s struggles against the Thunder. In the two previous meetings, Kobe has managed a combined 47 points on an awful 14-of-49 (28.6%) from the field, due in large part to the length and athleticism of OKC’s defenders.

Thunder Blogs: For the latest news and insight on the crew from OKC, check out the excellent work done by Daily Thunder and Welcome To Loud City.

Keys to the Game: Win the battle of the bigs. It’s tough to imagine Kobe hitting the floor in full facilitator mode, but he will do well to work off of his elite duo of seven-footers on the inside. Conversely, I’d look for the Thunder to pack the middle in an effort to entice not just Kobe, but all of the Lakers perimeter players (I am including Gasol here) to abandon the inside-out approach in favor of a jump-shot heavy approach. Be it via strong entry passes or dribble penetration, a top priority for the Lakers on Sunday will be to knife into the paint and take advantage of the defensive aggressiveness of the OKC bigs to earn frequent trips to the foul line and frequent, foul-induced trips to the bench for Perk and Ibaka (especially Ibaka, with whom on the floor, the Lakers’ offensive efficiency drops to just 86.7, compared with 108.6 without; great stat from Matt Moore, via Twitter).

Additionally, and thanks to Darius for his great input here, there are two areas of great importance. First, the Lakers’ ability to deal with Westbrook in the pick and roll will be vital. In the teams’ last match up, Russ was dialed in from mid-range, which, combined with the Lakers’ bigs (namely Bynum) sagging below the screens proved deadly. It will be interesting to see if the Lakers maintain this approach on Sunday, or tweak their scheme by having the bigs play the screen a bit more aggressively. This is not to say that the bigs will must hedge hard, but by playing a bit higher on the screen, Westbrook will have to deal with a defender – one prepared to contest the mid-range J – earlier, and perhaps be forced into more rushed decisions.

Finally, and every bit as importantly, the Lakers must get back in transition. It is vital that the Lakers effectively “build a wall” against Westbrook’s penetration, while also staying with the Thunder players filling the lanes. The keys here will be better floor balance and the perimeter guys prioritizing transition D over crashing the offensive glass. With Pau and Bynum – two of the best in the biz – already attacking the offensive boards, MWP and Matt Barnes will be far better served in working to limit OKC’s easy buckets by limiting run out opportunities.

Whether it ultimately results in a victory remains to be seen, but with the Clippers nipping at their heels, a possible second round matchup looming and third career scoring title in the balance (27.9 per game, v. Durant’s 27.8; yeah, you’re right, Kobe probably doesn’t care at all about that), look for Kobe and the Lakers to ratchet up the intensity on Sunday afternoon.

Where you can watch: 12:30 PM start time on ABC. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Records: Lakers: 38-22 (3rd in the West), Mavericks: 34-26 (6th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 106.1 (8th in the NBA), Mavericks: 102.8 (23rd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 103.6 (13th in the NBA), Mavericks: 101.4 (7th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Devin Ebanks, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Mavericks: Jason Kidd, Delonte West, Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood
Injuries: Lakers: Kobe Bryant (out), Jordan Hill (out); Mavericks: Rodrigue Beaubois (questionable)

The Lakers Coming In: The Lakers woke up Sunday winners of three straight (all sans Kobe Bryant, whose enflamed shin has sidelined him for the last four and will likely do so again on Sunday) and seven of their last ten, and in sole possession of the second best mark out West over that stretch. Sadly, however, the best mark (8-2) is shared by the team directly ahead of them in the standings (the Spurs) and the two (the Clippers and Grizzlies – 1 and 2.5 games behind, respectively) nipping at their heels.

On the plus side – setting aside concerns about the Lakers’ cyborg superstar (the dude that’s suited up, played and played well with virtually every manner of non-fatal ailment known to basketball-playing man) missing his fifth consecutive game in the midst of a playoff-positioning charge, because, well, y’know, the alternative is kinda freaky – the Lakers have received some outstanding play from the rest of the crew. As one would expect from the West’s most daunting frontcourt duo, Andrew Bynum (21.3 points, 16.3 rebounds and 2 blocks per game in the last three, including a silly 30-board explosion in San Antonio) and Pau Gasol (a tidy 20-10 and 2) have stepped up admirably in Kobe’s absence.

Additionally, however, the supporting cast has turned in a series of strong performances. In the starting lineup, while Ramon Sessions (11.3 and 5.7 assists) has remained steady and solid, Metta World Peace had brought nothing short of his A-game in the Lakers’ last two victories, netting a season-high 26 (including 5-of-8 3-pointers) against the Spurs, and following it up with 14 points, 8 rebounds and 5 steals Friday night against the Nuggets.

Meanwhile, Matt Barnes has provided a welcome spark to the second unit. Barnes has not only averaged 15.3 and 8 rebounds over his last three (including his best game as a Laker on Friday night – 24 and 10, including a perfect 4-of-4 on 3s), he’s locked in from the outside, making 8-of-13 (!!) from beyond the arc and is distributing the ball without turning it over, handing out 15 assists and committing just 7 turnovers in his last five games.

Assuming the extended absence is simply attributable to Kobe shelving the bulletproof act in the interest of peaking in the postseason, the past week will prove invaluable as this team moves forward. While sights would undoubtedly be set on a lower target were the Lakers to enter the postseason Kobeless, for the rest of the team to prove –to themselves and to the rest of the league – that they can win, sometimes comfortably, on the road, against playoff-caliber opposition without Kobe is a huge boost.

The Mavericks Coming in: The Mavericks take the floor at Staples in a situation similar to that of the Lakers. Like their Sunday hosts, the Mavs are firmly ensconced in their half of the West playoff bracket (unlike the Lakers, however, Dallas is in the bottom half), but not set in stone with regard to positioning. The Mavericks, currently the West’s #6 seed (and at the moment slated for a playoff rematch with the Lakers), trail the Grizzlies by a game and a half and lead the Nuggets and Rockets (who face one another tonight) by the same margin.

Currently 0-7 on the road against currently winning at a .600+ clip (great stat, via Arash Markazi on Twitter) and staring down the barrel of a 4-0 regular season sweep at the hands of the Lakers, the Mavericks will be beneficiaries of the opposing injury report (they were spared trying to stop LaMarcus Alridge on Friday) for the second straight game.

After a slow start, Dirk Nowitzki has rounded into form (maybe not the transcendent form of last spring, but definite All-Star form), with 51 points in his last two games on just 37 shot attempts, averaging 21.2 per game (on 46%/36%/88.5% from FG/3-pt/FT – how’s that for an off year?) after a month of March in which he hit nearly 45% of his 3-pointers and over 92% of his free throws en route to 25.2 per game. In the three previous meetings between these teams, Dirk is averaging 24 and 9.7 in just 35 minutes per game. Barring a cameo from the 2011 iteration, holding Dirk to these averages and focusing on shutting down the remainder of what is now an offensively challenged lot (Jason Terry is a threat, but Jason Kidd, a nicked up Roddy Beaubois, Shawn Marion, whatever is left of Vince Carter, Brandan Wright and Ian Mahinmi? Meh) should prove sufficient for a Laker victory.

Mavericks blogs: For the latest news and some great insight on the Mavs, check out the work done by The 2-Man Game and Mavs Moneyball.

Keys to the Game: FEED. THE. BEAST. It’s really awesome to see Brandan Wright’s career finally get rolling, Ian Mahinmi is a nice player and Brendan Haywood is, well, big, but Tyson Chalder ain’t walking through that door. The key to victory over these Mavs – as it would be with Kobe in the lineup, but particularly with him out – will be to dominate the paint through Andrew Bynum.

With Kobe in a suit, however, the Mavs will utilize their zone defense to pack the paint and force the Lakers to settle for the contested 3-point attempts that will be in far greater supply. This will ratchet up the pressure on the Lakers’ remaining wings (MWP, Barnes), along with Pau Gasol, to loosen that grip from the free throw line area, by both making mid-range jumpers to keep the defense honest and executing crisp, decisive entry passes to Bynum when the opportunity is present.

An additional challenge presented by Kobe’s absence is that Shawn Marion, the Mavs’ best defender (held Kobe to 29 points, on 10-of-37 in 2 games this season; Kobe scored 30 in the game Marion missed) and wing rebounder, will be afforded the opportunity to focus his effort on crashing the boards and shutting down the likes of MWP and Barnes, without fear of a Mamba strike. If he is allowed to dictate the terms under which he will be involved in this game, Marion will be a thorn in the Lakers’ side. It is vital that the Lakers a) keep Marion off the boards as best they can, while b) making him work as hard as possible on the defensive end, by running him off of screen, making him defend post-ups, run him off of screens.

Where you can watch: 12:30 PM start time on ABC. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

From Francios Battiste’s comically squeaky Bryant Gumbel (seriously, that’s either an inside joke or BG really ticked someone off) to Tug Coker’s almost cartoonishly awkward Larry Bird to a whirlwind of scenes that at times feels rushed, the six-person production of “Magic/Bird” is certainly not without flaw. With that said, however, the play does well to highlight the major milestones (accompanied beautifully by a backdrop of video screens for game footage) in the NBA’s most fascinating rivalry-turned-friendship-turned-brotherhood. In doing so, the production simultaneously informs from a high level those unfamiliar with the tale while engaging the hardcore fan through personal encounters (lunch at Ms. Bird’s house during the Converse shoot is awesome) that exist only in secondhand accounts and the memories of the legendary participants.

On Thursday night, ahead of the show’s official April 11 launch, I had the privilege of attending a preview performance of “Magic/Bird,” the stage adapted retrospective chronicling the evolution of the relationship between the most inextricably linked NBA superstars of the past 40 years. Written (Eric Simonson), produced (Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser) and directed (Thomas Kail) by the team responsible for delivering the story of legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi to Broadway, “Magic/Bird” admirably attempts to encapsulate in 90 minutes a tale of for which ten times the allotment would likely have proven insufficient.

The greatest challenge the play faces is one of balance, as it strives to delve deep enough into the minutiae of the NBA and the subjects’ lives to appease the longtime hoops fan while remaining relatable to the casual fan (or non-NBA fan theater-goer). In striving to serves these two masters, the play tends to skew toward the mainstream attendee more so than toward the NBA junkie – understandably, since the production is ultimately a for-profit commercial venture – but is reluctant to fully commit to a side of the fence.

The issues of race, HIV and the increased influence of national television interests on the NBA are touched upon but never fully explored. Whether due to time constraints (again, comprehensively telling this story in 90 minutes is one ambitious undertaking) or a desire to stick to the middle of the road in the interest of not alienating potential customers, “Magic/Bird” passes on the opportunity to genuinely dive into the hearts and minds of Magic and Bird – both of whom, along with the NBA, were involved in the production of the play – and the word they inhabited.

I should mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that I was accompanied Thursday night by considerable baggage. If this were jury duty, I’d have been among the first eliminated from the pool. There are few topics on which I am better versed, more invested, and less capable of emotionally disentangling myself. Thus, I entered the Longacre Theater (click here for tickets) with immense expectations that realistically would only have been met by an actual 1980s NBA game breaking out onstage.

“Magic/Bird” does, however showcase a number of performances, devices and moments that make the production, on balance, very honest and a lot of fun. For starters, we have Magic Johnson and Larry Bird themselves – Kevin Daniels and Tug Coker, respectively. Contradictory though this may seem, at no point does either actor’s performance grip the viewer in such a way that the line between actor and character is blurred – however, Daniels and Coker do successfully embody the overall persona of the men they portray. Nowhere is this more evident than in their appearances on stage together. This interplay is fascinating, ironically not because of any dialogue or delivery, but rather in its absence. I have seen countless interviews, not to mention HBO’s spectacular “Courtship of Rivals” documentary (against which, fairly or not, this play will ultimately be measured) in which Magic and Bird attempt to describe the experience of living their rivalry, of being them for that period of time. The more I hear these greats discuss the years and head-to-head clashes that define their legacies and permanently fused them in NBA lore, the more convinced I am of one takeaway – unless you know, you really don’t know.  As an onstage team Daniels and Coker do an excellent job of conveying this element of the relationship – the incredible familiarity, knowing looks and silences that speak volumes.

Individually, Daniels puts forth a strong effort in his portrayal of Magic. He is engaging, enthusiastic and likeable, flashing the trademark grin and addressing “the media” with familiarity and playfulness. When necessary, he is genuine and succeeds in hitting the appropriate emotional chords. In contemplating the biggest shortcoming in Daniels’ performance, I ultimately concluded the worst that can be held against him is that while he convincingly portrays a Los Angeles Laker whose experiences mirror those of Magic Johnson, he simply is not Magic. Given the paucity of Magic-level charisma not only in sports, but all walks of life, it would be unfair to penalize an otherwise solid performance for the inability to command a room like few in history ever have.

As mentioned previously, Tug Coker’s Larry Bird left something to be desired. He goes too far in attempting to capture the introverted demeanor and deliberate speaking cadence with which Bird is synonymous. These elements of Bird’s personality are presumably overdone by design, in order to quickly and decisively establish the character for the uninitiated. Though strategically understandable, the end result misses the mark, with Bird – one of NBA history’s most intelligent, compelling and tortured characters – coming off painfully slow and awkward, almost a cartoonish dullard.

The shortcomings of Bird’s character in the play are not solely attributed to Coker, but in part to the script with which he had to work. As part of an extended scene that takes place at the home of Bird’s mother, in which Bird and Magic (now famously) share a home-cooked meal and the seeds of future friendship take root, the men take a moment to discuss their respective upbringings. A significant chunk of this conversation is spent reflecting upon the relationship each shared with their fathers. For one reason or another – perhaps at the request of Larry Bird (if so, I totally understand), or in a misguided attempt to anesthetize the story, not a mention is made of Bird’s father’s suicide in 1975, which, needless to say, was a monumental defining moment in his life.

Speaking of lunch at Ms. Bird’s (my personal highlight), Deirdre O’Connell (who also portrays reporter Patricia Moore and generic 1980s Boston barkeep “Shelly” – both extremely well) is outstanding (and very funny) as Dinah Bird. She does an excellent job of toeing the line between zealous NBA fan and “friend’s mom” in her conversations with Magic, and speaking to Larry (the awkwardness here was spot on) like an unapologetic mother that doesn’t give a damn how many MVPs you’ve got.

Other highlights include not-Tom-Hanks-the-other-Bosom-Buddy Peter Scolari, who portrays Red Auerbach, Pat Riley (great physical resemblance, very minor role) and Jerry Buss (cartoonish, in a car salesman sort of way). Though a bit spry and muscled (seriously, we’d all do well to look like that at almost 57) to cut the figure of an aging Auerbach, Scolari’s combination of mannerisms and accent are a lot of fun and sell the character well. Finally, a shout out to Robert Manning, Jr., who portrayed among others (Cornbread Maxwell, Norm Nixon) Lakers’ defensive ace, and one of Magic’s close friends of the Showtime era, Michael Cooper. Between the voice (really close to genuine article), the familiar warmup-jacket-and-shorts in the layup line and a really cool restaurant scene with Magic that I like to imagine actually went down in late-80s L.A., Coop heads the list of secondary characters.

In adapting an incredibly rich and complex story to pique the interest of both non- and hardcore fan, “Magic/Bird’s” 90-minute run time makes for something of a snug fit. As a result, the play fails to capitalize on opportunities to engage in some truly meaningful dialogue. However, in recognizing the immense challenge of attempting to engage such disparate audiences, a number of well-executed scenes and performances, combined with the headline duo’s chemistry in their onstage interactions, “Magic/Bird” succeeds in educating the uninitiated while striking a chord with those that lived and died with the NBA of the 1980s.

Whether you are looking to teach a young child about the most vital period in the history of the game or simply looking to take short stroll through history, “Magic/Bird” will deliver the goods. At the end of the day, I guess that can’t be too far off the mark.

Records: Lakers: 30-18 (3rd in West), Grizzlies: 25-21 (6th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 104.7 (15th in NBA), Grizzlies: 102.8 (21st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 101.8 (10th in NBA), Grizzlies: 101.5 (8th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Grizzlies: Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol
Injuries: Lakers: none; Grizzlies: Darrell Arthur (out)
The Lakers Coming In: Euphoric. A team that was already experiencing more success than the eyeball test would have suggested has addressed its most glaring deficiency and now looks not only like a lock for a top-3 playoff seed, but a legitimately nightmare matchup once the playoffs begin. As we’ll see momentarily, the Lakers have played some solid ball all season, but it’s rather quickly become obvious just how hamstrung this squad was by woeful point guard play in the season’s first three months. Thanks to wins in 16 of their last 22 games, including 7 of the last 10, the Lakers have bypassed the Clippers (loser of 10 of 17 since the All-Star break) for the top spot in the Pacific (now leading by 3 games) and tonight’s opponent as well (the resurgent Memphis Grizzlies), who now trail Kobe & Co. by 4 games.

Now, it would be crazy to suggest that Ramon Sessions will maintain the incredible 58%-shooting, 50%-from-3, near-26-PER form we’ve seen in his first five games as a Laker, but what fans are justified in banking on are the skills he’s brought to this team – namely top-shelf foot speed and quickness, along with an ability to pose a multi-dimensional threat coming off of a screen. It’s a bit early to get too deeply analytical about the long term impact of Sessions on these Lakers – extrapolating off this small sample might lead to a slightly premature Hall of Fame induction and the aggressive tempering of expectations is just no fun – so, as we’ve done in recent days, let’s revel in the fact that we’ve now got a lead guard, and enjoy our own irrational, Linsanity-esque ride for as long as it lasts, knowing full well that if the Ramon Sessions we get in the long haul is even 60% of this Ramon Sessions, the coming weeks are going to be a blast.

The Grizzlies Coming In: The Grizzlies, like the Lakers, had been playing some excellent ball of late. Since a 10-point home loss to the Jazz on February 12 dropped them to 14-14, the Grizz have prevailed in 11 of 18 and, until this week, appeared to be cementing their place in the middle of the West’s playoff seedings.

However, while Memphis, now back at full strength following the return of Zach Randolph, is still a safe bet to finish among the conference’s top eight, losses in each of their last three, including a convincing defeat at the hands of Clippers yesterday, has dropped them into the dogfight at the bottom half of the West bracket. Though currently sixth and just a game behind the Clippers and Mavericks for #’s 4 and 5, the Grizzlies are in a virtual tie with the hard-charging Jazz and and a half game up on the Nuggets in the final three playoff spots, with the Rockets and invigorated Suns breathing down their necks.

As can reasonably be said of many teams in similar situations, the Grizzlies simply cannot afford to allow this current slump to extend much further. The Lakers will need to approach this contest with a bit of caution, as evidenced by the absences of Rudy Gay for the entirety of the fourth quarter and Mike Conley for the final 19 minutes against the Clippers, rather than exhausting all of their resources in what likely would have been a futile comeback attempt, the team is likely to see the very best the Grizzlies have to offer.

Grizzlies Blogs: 3 Shades of Blue and Straight Outta Vancouver do an excellent job of covering the Grizz. Give these guys a read.

Keys to the Game: This game is a treasure trove of fascinating matchups. For starters, Ramon Sessions will face the toughest head-to-head matchup of his Laker tenure, when he squares off against a rested Mike Conley. On the wings, each squad’s top perimeter scorer will lock horns with the opponent’s top perimeter defender, as Tony Allen will check Kobe Bryant, while Matt Barnes/MWP attempt to keep Rudy Gay quiet. However, the determining factor in this one is likely to be the battle in the trenches.

While the Grizzlies limited (to some extent) Z-Bo’s minutes following his return from injury, he saw the floor for nearly 38 minutes against the Clippers. With the exception of his 25-minute, 25-point outburst off the bench in his first game back, Randolph’s game has yet to reach its max potential. With that said, he is beginning to look like his old self and is likely not far from a vintage, ground-bound Z-Bo 25-18. It will be vital that Pau Gasol check him aggressively and carry that aggression to the offensive end to make Randolph work on D, preferably out of prime rebounding position.

Meanwhile, the best big man battle in the Western Conference will be waged on the other side of the paint, as Andrew Bynum and Pau’s “little” brother, Marc (one of the only bigs in the NBA capable of matching Drew’s strength) square off. Again, aggression will be the order of the day, as Bynum, in what should be an excellent challenge, will be called on to bring max effort both at the defensive end and on the boards, while controlling his aggression to avoid foul trouble, as he will have to give the Lakers at least 20-12, and no fewer than 35 minutes.

On the heels of a potentially epic Heat-Thunder clash, this ought to be another must-watch. At the end of the day, the Lakers will probably have too much length up front and enough backcourt firepower to prevail, though a blowout would come as something of a surprise. 

Where you can watch: 7:30 PM start time on ESPN. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Box Score: Lakers 109, Mavericks 93
Offensive Efficiency: Lakers 123.9, Mavericks 105.7
True Shooting %: Lakers 68.2%, Mavericks 53.5%

On the heels of a brutal come-from-ahead loss in Houston on Tuesday night, the Lakers wrapped up their Texas two-step in Dallas, where the defending champs and administrators of last spring’s postseason humiliation awaited. More tough sledding ahead? Not so much.

The Good: Practically everything. For starters, you know how all season the “Bad” and “Ugly” sections of these reviews have lamented the Lakers’ inability to a) connect from the outside and b) generate any kind of meaningful production off of the bench? Well, on Wednesday night, the Lakers made a phenomenal 50% of their 18 3-point attempts, six of them by bench players. Speaking of which, the Lakers’ bench was outscored by its Mavs’ counterpart by just two points, 38-36, staggering given we’re talking about, y’know, the Lakers’ bench.

In the starting unit, deadly efficiency ruled the day, as Kobe Bryant, operating within the confines of the offense, scored 30 on 11-of-18 from the floor (and 7-of-7 FT), peppering the Mavs from mid-range all night. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol was absolutely masterful. Pau played one of, if not his best game of the season, connecting on 13 of his 16 shots en route to 27 points (to which he added 9 rebounds). Gasol was unstoppable on Wednesday night, not only making 6-of-7 in the paint, but doing significant damage from the outside as well, shooting 8-of-10 from outside the key, including a perfect 7-of-7 from 17-20 feet between the elbow and success on his only 3-point attempt.

Finally, we have Ramon Sessions. Much to the chagrin of the fans of Cleveland, Sessions has sent shockwaves through Lakerland, providing us with a glimpse into a life that heretofore might as well have existed in another galaxy. Not since the days of Nick Van Exel have Laker fans had a young and explosive point guard at the helm. On Wednesday night, Ramon Sessions played the point guard game that this fan base has desperately been waiting for. In 29 minutes, divided into two extended stretches, Ramon was a revelation, connecting on 7 of 8 shots, including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc for his 17 points, grabbing 5 rebounds and handing out 9 assists.

Every bit as impressive as his phenomenal stat line was his role in the Lakers’ offense, which only really came to life when he was on the floor. Sessions’ greatest assets are his quickness and speed off the dribble, which he utilized beautifully, starting almost immediately after entering the game with just under five minutes remaining in the first quarter, knifing into the lane and, with excellent decision-making, setting up open jump shots for teammates for each of his 9 assists, including four in a two-minute span late in the first quarter.

We’ve got a point guard!

The Bad: With the third member of their underperforming trio now spending his evenings trying to reign in Russell Westbrook, the “subpar stat line” onus was on Metta World Peace and Steve Blake. Now, truth be told neither of these guys was a complete disaster against the Mavs – MWP managed 4 rebounds, 3 assists and a blocked shot in 25 minutes, while Blake, Mike Brown’s starting point guard “for the foreseeable future,” had two pair, assists and steals, in 17 minutes on the floor – but a combined 7 points on 2-of-9 shooting, even with no turnovers, in 42 minutes is, how can I put this gently, kinda stinky.

The Ugly: Thanks to his averages of 23.7 points and 12.3 rebounds over the last 10 games, Andrew Bynum was obviously a focal point in the Mavericks’ defensive game plan. In the game’s opening minute Bynum grabbed a defensive rebound and converted a pretty reverse layup at the other end. However, rather than building on this dominating this contest the way he has so many of late, that play was the last one of consequence from the big man for some time.

Bynum was (understandably) the target of aggressive double and triple teams on every post touch from that point forward, and was unable to deliver the ball to the open man in a timely or effective manner. This strategy proved particularly effective for the Mavs in the first half, as the Lakers’ perimeter players frequently cut baseline after delivering the ball to Bynum down low. This tactic actually simplified the Mavs’ task, as they doubled aggressively off of the cutter, giving ‘Drew fits and preventing the Lakers from ever establishing him as an offensive threat.

However, the ugliness in Bynum’s performance on Wednesday night is not the result of Mavs’ defense pressuring him into an inefficient offensive game (he was 4-of-5 from the field) or sloppy effort passing out of the post (he didn’t turn the ball over once), but in Andrew’s generally lackadaisical effort. Far too often on Wednesday, Bynum was boxed out on both the offensive and defensive glass by smaller player that have no business doing so. Far too often he jogged back on offense, often not setting up inside the 3-point arc until 10+ seconds of the possession were gone. Perhaps the best example of this lackluster effort came in the first quarter, when, attempting to guard Dirk Nowitzki on the perimeter, Bynum not only failed to get into a defensive stance, but barely had a chance to turn around as the Mavs’ (by far) most potent offensive threat blew by him for a layup.

This is by no means a chronic issue and all’s well that ends well, but for a guy whose untimely ejection set the stage for crushing come-from-ahead loss the night before, Andrew Bynum spent far too much time on Wednesday play with little-to-no spark at all.

Play of the Game: With all of that said, Andrew Bynum linked up with fellow big Pau Gasol with about eight minutes left in the game – this time successfully passing out of a double team – firing a cross-court kick-out to the right corner, from which Pau buried a three-point dagger that put the Lakers ahead 90-76.

On its own this play would not be worthy of PoG, but the brazen, villainous confidence of ‘Drew made it truly memorable. In front of the crowd that is more eager than any other to see him fail (he did, after try to break their gelled-up midget 10 months ago), after making the pass to Gasol, Bynum made his way back down the floor with the ball still in the air, three fingers held aloft for all to see.

Badass.

Unfortunately for the Laker bigs, however, the top spot belong to one Kobe Bean Bryant, who, midway through the third quarter, received a lob from Pau Gasol and finished in a manner that can only be described as sublime.