Records: Lakers 46-20 (3rd in West), Mavericks 47-18 (2nd in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.7 (2nd in NBA), Mavericks 110.2 (8th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.6 (8th in NBA), Mavericks 105.8 (12th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Mavericks: Jason Kidd, Rodrigue Beaubois, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler
Injuries: Lakers: Devin Ebanks & Theo Ratliff (out); Mavericks: Caron Butler & Dominique Jones (out), Peja Stojakovic (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: One loss, even in a game that the Lakers really wanted, doesn’t diminish the fact that the team really has been playing strong ball of late. I’ll happily take 8 wins in 9 tries any time it’s offered up especially when it’s fueled with top shelf defense. That said, the loss to the Heat did bring up some old ugly habits that the Lakers need to ensure don’t linger for too long. Sloppy rotations on the wing led to too many open jumpers to capable shooters while both bigs and smalls didn’t do a good job controlling the defensive glass. When you combine that with the turnover bug popping up at the wrong times and the reserves not contributing with needed consistency, Thursday’s Lakers looked quite similar to the team that has been far too up and down for most of the year in these key areas. Mind you, even with these problems cropping up the Lakers were very much in position to win that game so things aren’t that bad. But those are habits the Lakers need to flush from their system if they’re going to close the season as strong as they’d like. I’d like to see better in these areas starting tonight.
The Mavericks Coming in: One reason the Lakers haven’t made up more ground on the Mavs in the chase for the 2nd seed out West is because Dallas has been playing so well. They’ve only lost 3 times in their last 23 games and each of those L’s was by a single point. The veteran crew that the Mavs put on the floor just seem to know how to win games. Dirk continues his stellar play as an all around offensive force with shooting percentages (53/43/88 from the field, three, and FT line) that are truly eye popping. Jason Kidd is still going strong as a floor general and has evolved into a viable deep threat from beyond the arc. Jason Terry is a 4th quarter terror to opposing teams and Shawn Marion is having a bounce back year of sorts with solid activity around the rim and And Tyson Chandler is providing the rugged defense, rebounding, and inside finishing on lobs and put backs that he gave the Hornets just a few years ago in their rise as a West power.
All that said, while Dallas has been on an extended run of playing winning ball, 2 of those 3 losses (in their last 23 games) have come in their last 4 contests. Both New Orleans and Memphis were able to squeak out wins on the strength of strong play from their PF’s and timely scoring from their PG’s. And if Dallas does have a weakness it’s that their defense isn’t consistent, often forcing them to play zone to cover up for their deficiencies in stopping players on the wing and when going after Dirk on that side of the ball. Make no mistake, though, the Mavs are a top flight team. They’ve infused their lineup with youth and athleticism with the return of Roddy Beaubois and offer useful options off the bench in Barrea, Peja, Cardinal, and Haywood. They’re deep, experienced and surely have an underestimated hunger to claim a championship before their core of veteran players retire. Their time is now and they’re playing like it.
Keys to game: Dallas, more than maybe any other team outside of Boston, offers a team that matches up quite well with the Lakers. Their size, bench play, style of guards, and outside shooting seem perfectly constructed to play the Lakers tough. In order to defeat such a team the Lakers will need to be at their best in order to counteract those strengths.
Offensively, the typical approach of working the ball inside out is still the best strategy, but not necessarily in the way that you’d think. Yes, Gasol and Bynum should be asked to do work against Dirk and Chandler respectively, but I’d also like to see Kobe go into the post more this game than he did against the Heat. The Mavs will have a difficult choice to make today in terms of who they put on #24. Before the return of Beaubois the Mavs were quite content at starting DeShawn Stevenson to defend Kobe, but now that won’t be the case. Beaubois will be forced to defend a much bigger player today as he’ll either defend Kobe or will move onto Artest if Marion defends the Mamba. This lack of a multiple, capable wing defenders could be the Mavs downfall against the Lakers should they do what’s needed to exploit this weakness. That means moving Kobe off the ball more frequently and having him run off screens both to get his jumper off as well as to motion him to the post. I’d love to see the Lakers run center opposite sets for Kobe and also have him run off the single/double screen actions so he can curl towards the paint to get his shot off against either defender that he sees.
The other key offensively will be how the Lakers deal with the Mavs’ zone D. Ball and player movement will need to be crisp. Shooters will need to catch and shoot without hesitation and knock down some shots to loosen up the D. Also, the Lakers bigs will need to be active in both flashing to open space at the FT line and along the baseline. If the ball moves quickly and decisively into these gaps it will force the Mavs D to collapse and it will open up every other option in the Lakers’ sets. If the opposite occurs and the Lakers lazily swing the ball around the perimeter and simply settle for contested jumpers it will be a long night. The Lakers know what they’ll need to do, the question is if they’ll commit to it.
Defensively, slowing the Mavs is a multi-layered task that will truly test the Lakers new defensive scheme. The Lakers are more than happy to give up the mid-range jumper and force teams to bury long twos to beat them. Well, Dallas has the exact personnel to do just that. Dirk is one of the best mid-range shooters in the league, making 51% of his shots from 10-15 feet and a whopping 54% of his shots from 16-23 feet. Meanwhile, Jason Terry makes those shots at a very respectable 47% and 46%. If the Lakers are going to slow the Mavs in these areas they’ll need strong individual D (I’m looking at you Pau and Odom) and Bynum will need to be ready to contest those shots when players come off screens rather than being overly concerned with players getting all the way to the rim (ala Wade and LeBron). Terry, Beaubois, and Barrea are the only Mavs that consistently threaten the rim on penetration, so understanding that players will be more than comfortable shooting that pull up J will have to be in the back of the minds of the Lakers bigs.
The other defensive key is ensuring that the Lakers clean up their defensive glass. Dallas is not a particularly good offensive rebounding team but in Chandler, Haywood, and Marion they have active bodies that will go after the ball if the Lakers relax after the shot goes up. Dallas is too efficient an offensive team to give extra opportunities to.
Lastly, the pace of this game should favor the Lakers as the Mavs actually play at a slower pace than the Lakers. This should enable the Lakers to set up both their halfcourt O and D easily. However don’t discount Dallas’ ability to change the tempo of the contest by pushing the ball and trying to get easy baskets in transition at the rim and along the perimeter against collapsing and late rotating defenders. Kidd, Beaubois, Terry, and Barrea all have some waterbug in them and they’re more than willing to get out in the open floor and exploit defenses. This is even more of a strategy when Dirk is out of the game and Marion slides to PF and Cardinal comes into the game. The Lakers bigs will need to get back but protect the rim so that the wings can mark shooters who love to run to the three point line in early offensive sets.
We all know this is a big game. In fact, despite the sexiness of the Heat match up with all that star power, today’s game is even more important to the Lakers. Dallas is a game and a half up in the standings and this game offers the perfect opportunity to cut into that lead and ultimately would put them one step closer to snatching the #2 seed away from them. Plus, winning this game would allow the Lakers to finish 3-1 on their road trip, a mark that would be quite the achievement considering the caliber of opponent they faced on this trip.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time out west on KCAL and on NBA TV. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.