The Lakers are back from their three game east coast road trip, losers of all three games and four in a row overall. Even with those losses, however, fans are probably getting exactly what they want. The team has made strides since the all-star break and are undoubtedly playing better basketball. They are competitive for longer in games, but, on most nights, aren’t able to sustain through the final buzzer to hold on. The other team often makes a run in the 4th quarter, seizes control, and the Lakers just don’t have the guns to come back. This style of game allows fans to see progress in terms of on court play, while securing the losses that help cement a record that has a strong chance of allowing team to hold on to their draft pick this June. In other words it’s a win-“win”.
While many Lakers fans can live with what their team is going through right now, the same might not be able to be said about those who root for tonight’s opponent. The Mavs have lost two in a row and four of their last five. And while they still boast a very impressive 40-24 record heading into Sunday’s matchup with the Lakers, their recent slide has dropped them to 7th in the conference behind the surging Spurs. And while the difference between the 5/6/7 seeds in the West is only one game, the fact is that even a climb up to 5th doesn’t get them home court advantage and would still leave them matched up Houston or Portland (likely) or the Grizz in the first round while giving up home court advantage. In other words, a bloodbath of a first round series where they have to win (at least) one game on the road to advance.
What a brutal conference.
In saying all that, you would think this game would serve a nice opportunity for the Mavs to get right. The Lakers are an inferior opponent and, even though they are playing at home, can expect to experience some “first game back from a road trip” rust that always seems to occur. When you add the return of Chandler Parsons to the Mavs, they will get the extra boost they have been missing of late and a reestablishing of proper slotting of players into roles and rotations. This should all combine to the Mavs coming out strong, playing hungry, and looking to get back on track as they head into the final quarter of the season and push towards their goal of playing their best as the playoffs begin.
Something about all this doesn’t feel right to me, though. As noted above, and despite the W/L results, the Lakers have been playing better of late. Since the All-Star break, the Lakers’ efficiency differential is only -1.2, good for 15th best in the league during that period. This may not seem very good (and it’s really nothing to write home about), but is well ahead of their -6.4 differential on the season and it’s much better than the Mavs’ -4.6 differential (5th worst in the league) during that same period. Looking at these numbers puts this match up in a bit of a different light and it would not surprise me at all if the game is closer than the team’s records say it should be.
From an X’s and O’s standpoint, the match up that intrigues me the most is Jordan Clarkson versus Rajon Rondo. Clarkson is coming off a career scoring night (25 points) against the Grizzlies and took it to Mike Conley and Courtney Lee for stretches of that contest. Rondo has a reputation as a top defender at his position so I am interested to see if Clarkson can continue his recent roll. Expect to see the rookie run a fair amount of P&R, especially involving whoever Dirk is guarding, so he can try to force a switch or attack the big German in space to try and get into the lane. If Clarkson can turn the corner before Rondo can recover, he has a chance to get off good shots in the mid-range or draw in Tyson Chandler and get the Mavs into their defensive rotations. From there Clarkson will need to make smart shoot/pass decisions and find ways to pick out the open man, though I imagine the easiest read for him will be to hit Jordan Hill popping as a release valve for long two point jumpers.
If Clarkson can make those reads well and keep the defense off-balance, I’ve a feeling Jeremy Lin will be able to do the same with the second unit. Add in some shot making from Wayne Ellington and strong energy/effort nights from Ed Davis and Tarik Black and, like I said, I could see this game being a lot closer than anticipated in the 4th quarter. We’ll see how it all plays out.
Where you can watch: 6:30PM start time on TWC Sportsnet locally and NBA TV nationally. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.