7 or 8? What's your pleasure?
Tonight, Golden State plays Dallas in a game that could affect the Lakers' playoff seeding. Should the Warriors come out on top this evening (completing a improbable-but-true sweeping of the Mavs), a Wednesday win against Portland combined with a Laker loss to Sacramento means the Bay Area playoff drought will not only end, but the Lakers will go from a 7 seed and a series against Phoenix to an 8 seed showdown with Dallas. The Lakers obviously control their own destiny (win tomorrow and it's a moot point), but if you could control destinies, how would you prefer the dust settle? A rumble with Phoenix or Dallas?
Let me preface this question by stating, to be blunt, I don't think the Lakers can hang with either team. I'll root my head off for it to happen, but I'm just being honest. Yes, last year's team was a consensus underdog and ended up pushing Phoenix to 7 games. But that team also rolled into the postseason. Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown and Luke Walton caught a near simultaneous fire, creating with Kobe the groove necessary to make this team better than the sum of its parts. The Lakers crossed the 2007 finish line running on fumes. Injuries killed their chances of creating any flow or cohesion, especially on the defensive end. Kwame, Walton, LO and Mo Evans are playing at considerably less than 100%. Smush Parker lost his starting gig 80 games into an 82 game season (Try to remember the last time that happened.). Vlad Radmanovic, their big free agent signing, is a non-factor. And frankly, Kobe looks pretty tired. He's had to do a lot of heavy lifting with players in and out of the lineup and the playoffs at stake. I think it's catching up with him.
None of this bodes particularly well heading into the weekend, which is why I think of this question as a big time "relatively speaking" thing. Kind of like, "Which would I rather eat? A tin can or a glass bottle?" Neither will sit well, but you gotta pick a poison. I don't know if it's because cartoons have convinced me that goats eat tin cans and go on to live long and healthy lives, or because I remain permanently scarred by an episode of "Oz" where Adebisi and Ryan O'Reilly killed an Italian gang leader by putting a daily dose of ground glass in his food, eventually inducing internal bleeding. But in any event, I think of tin cans as "better eating." In my mind, Dallas represents that can.
The way I view the Lakers, their collective weaknesses hurt them considerably more than their collective strengths help. Therefore, my #1 criteria would be to pick an opponent that exposes fewer weaknesses, and if possible, the mack daddy of them all (as opposed to weighing matchups in the Lakers' favor and going from there). So what is the Lakers' #1 problem? Defense. And specifically, transition defense. It's a non-existent and often crippling weakness, so I think it behooves the Lakers greatly not to play a running team. Dallas runs considerably less than Phoenix. I still think Dallas can pick apart the Lakers in a half court set (or something between that and a sprint), but again, this is about what I think gives the Lakers a better, if still slim, shot. That relative lack of running will also make things easier on the injured guys, especially Kwame, who'll only have two games under his belt before the postseason starts. Obviously, the matchups aren't great (Dirk Nowitzki's always a nightmare, and the Lakers don't really have anyone for Josh Howard, other than maybe Kobe), but the Phoenix personnel don't exactly scream "easy covers." Plus, in a close game, I consider Steve Nash much scarier than Dirk. I can remember quite a few occasions where the Big German missed a big shot down the stretch, even free throws (which says a lot, considering he's a 90% guy). I recall few, if any, times the Big Canadien crapped out in the clutch. Honestly, I just think Nash is mentally tougher than Dirk (for that matter, I also think the Suns are a scrappier bunch than the Mavs). And despite Kobe arguably having no equal in a "clutchness mano y' mano," I'd still rather square him off against the lesser competitor.
In the meantime, the Lakers may actually match up to better against Phoenix, at least player to player. LO has given Shawn Marion fits at times and Kwame can actually put a body on Amare Stoudemire. Unfortunately, with Kwame just coming back, I don't know how effectively he'll be able to do it over the course of a series. And it still comes back to the frenetic pace and game plan that hurts the Lakers. In my mind, Phoenix's constantly pushed tempo more than offsets any individual matchups potentially working in L.A.'s favor. The Denver Nuggets are basically the "Phoenix-lite" of running teams (and play even worse D), and the Lakers couldn't hang with them. I don't see it playing out better against the actual Suns. Phoenix becames, as a team, the least favorable matchup, and one that I think causes more problems than any individual matchup issues with Dallas.
That all being said, I firmly believe the need to win against Sacto supercedes any opponent preference. It's always best to go into the postseason with momentum and the Lakers will take any scraps they can get. As always, I'm rooting for a win. And like I said, this entire analysis is to a large degree much ado about nothing, since I don't picture either series a purple and gold victory. But if you're asking which one strikes me as the ever-so slightly bigger upset candidate, I'll shrug and say Dallas.
But you may not agree. And will probably tell me why.