Mavericks: Jalen Brunson; Reggie Bullock; Dwight Powell; Dorian Finney-Smith; Kristaps Porzingis
Lakers: Russell Westbrook, Avery Bradley, Wayne Ellington, LeBron James, Anthony Davis
Mavericks: Luka Don?i? (out); Sterling Brown (out); Willie Cauley-Stein (out)
Lakers: Talen Horton-Tucker (out; Health & Safety Protocol); Malik Monk (out; Health & Safety Protocol); Dwight Howard (out; Health & Safety Protocol); Trevor Ariza (out); Kendrick Nunn (out)
Whether positively or negatively, previewing these Lakers’ games is a fairly straightforward exercise. When the world is on fire, we can almost always point to some combination of attention to detail, defensive intensity, and the superstars needing to play like superstars. Conversely, on those glorious, if (thus far) fleeting occasions when things are humming along, in all likelihood it’s because the superstars are playing like superstars. Sure, the defense, bench contributions, secondary playmaking and other X factors play a role, and certainly dissected after the fact. However, is this team is going to have even a modicum of meaningful success, at least one of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook must be firing on all cylinders
Over the past three weeks, it’s been LeBron stepping to the fore. That, in and of itself isn’t a great shock, but the extent to which he’s dominated of late – and the joy with which he’s doing it – are noteworthy. Since his one-game suspension following the dustup in Detroit, Bron has taking part in eight games (recall that he did miss another in Sacramento, during his brief sojourn into the Health & Safety Protocols). In those eight games, five of which have been Laker wins, LeBron is averaging basically 30, 7 and 8, with over a steal and a half per game. In the victories, he’s been incredible, averaging 33 points, on 58.3% shooting and 46.1% from 3, with 7.2 assists and over a block and a half (with 5 in the last two) per game.
Of course, there were still a pair of maddening losses, to the undermanned Memphis Grizzlies, and to a Clippers team that, prior to seeing the Lakers, was struggling and seemingly running on fumes. For the time being, though, we can put those frustrations on the back burner as, thanks to the efforts of their Big Three, the Lakers ran the Celtics off the Staples Center floor, before LeBron and a less-prolific-but-more-efficient Russ, in Anthony Davis’ absence, easily dispatched of a pair of cellar dwellers – one of whom, it must be said, had beaten them twice already this season – to climb to two games above .500 for the first time in a month.
The Lakers are back on the road tonight, in Dallas, to take on a Mavericks team with a similarly disappointing record that, for much of the early season, flattered their actual play. Though the Mavs come in having won three of their last four, it’s worth noting that their record over the past month is just 5-9, with a single win – an overtime win on November 23 in L.A. against the Clippers – that could be deemed “impressive”. Their recent “hot streak” has come at the expenses of the shorthanded Grizzlies (who, yes, did beat the Lakers), the no-longer-feisty Thunder, and a Charlotte Hornets team beset by Health & Safety Protocol absences.
The 14-13 Mavs sit seventh in the West, tied with the Nuggets, half a game behind the Lakers. Their Mavs’ is now far more representative of their play (Pythagorean wins put their “expected” record at 13-14), as they rank in the NBA’s bottom third in offensive efficiency (20th), and are completely averaged in both defensive efficiency (14th), Net Rating (14th), SRS (16th; again, SRS is a Basketball Reference stat that rates performances as above/below average, based on point differential and strength of schedule).
Compounding their issues is the fact that they themselves are now shorthanded tonight. Most importantly, of course, their offensive engine, Luka Don?i?, is out nursing an injured ankle, but it’s worth mentioning that the Mavs are also marginally thinner up front, with Willie Cauley Stein out for personal reasons. With LeBron completely dialed in and dominant, and AD back in the lineup, they could have used all the help they could get.
We’d be completely remiss to gloss over the Lakers’ own severely diminished roster. It’s been revealed that not only is Talen Horton-Tucker, who’d tested positive for COVID, is now in the Health & Safety Protocols, but he’s joined there by Dwight Howard and Malik Monk. THT, who recently broke out of a mini-slump and has not only been playing well, but playing very well alongside LeBron, will, of course, be missed. However, it’s the loss of Howard that could complicate matter for the Lakers. With Anthony Davis probably not at 100%, we’re likely in for some combination of LeBron at the 5 and more DeAndre Jordan then we’re in the market for. As the Mavs don’t have a front line that will punish the Lakers, this, isn’t an unsurmountable issue, though it’s certainly not ideal.
Now, this is typically the part of the preview what we talked about marginal advantages and the little bits here in there that could help the Lakers over the top. Sure, wining the “little things” battle will help. It always does. HOWEVER…
With Anthony Davis back in the lineup, all three of the stars are going to be available tonight. The Mavs’ biggest star is not. The superstars need to be superstars.
There’s little doubt that LeBron will bring the effort and production that he’s put forth since that bizarre night in Detroit, which just won him the conference’s Player of the Week award. Provided Anthony Davis’ knee isn’t bothering him too much, tonight’s matchup sets up ideally for AD, who’ll have the opportunity attack some combination of Kristaps Porzingis, Dorian Finney-Smith and Josh Powell.
And Russ? Well, his mandate is a simple one: maintain his energy and efficiency, limit errors, and, every bit as importantly, make life as difficult as possible for Jalen Brunson. With Luka out of the lineup, the Lakers must disrupt the Mavs’ rhythm early and often, and frustrating Brunson – who’s played very well all season – is key. With no Luka for the Mavs to turn to, frustrating Brunson and consistently attacking Porzingis should be more than enough to ascend to the lofty heights of “three games over .500” for the first time since last season.
Where you can watch: 4:30 pm Pacific start time on ESPN and Spectrum SportsNet.