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.
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.