Five things to watch in Lakers-Mavericks matchup
1. Expect a playoff atmosphere Thursday night. For once, the Lakers are touting this as a big game. The Lakers (53-20) have only a half-game edge over Dallas for second place in the Western Conference and whichever team wins would also win the regular-season series, two games to one. A Lakers victory would widen their lead over Dallas to 1 1/2 games and at least keep them up to speed with San Antonio, which had lost five straight games to Boston before playing the Celtics on Thursday night.
By no means will this make or break either team's chances for home-court advantage, however, because the Lakers have eight games left in the regular season and the Mavericks nine. Even though a Dallas win would give the Mavericks a 2-1 regular-series edge over the Lakers, that doesn't automatically mean the Mavs would have home-court advantage if the two teams finished with the same record. That's because the Lakers have already clinched the Pacific Division and that's more important than head-to-head record. The Mavericks would have to surpass San Antonio and clinch the Southwest Division to win the tiebreaker, and because the Spurs hold a four-game lead over Dallas that scenario isn't likely. But if it did it's safe to presume the Lakers and Dallas would then be competing for the first and second seeds.
Both teams enter this contest peaking at the right time. The Lakers have won seven consecutive games, have won nine in a row at Staples Center and are 15-1 since the All-Star break for various reasons, including Andrew Bynum's defensive resurgence, Ron Artest's improved shooting, Kobe Bryant's health with the exception of a sprained left ankle that kept him limited for three games and Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom's both putting together consistent performances. Meanwhile, the Mavericks boast a league-leading 27-10 road record, have won five consecutive games and have shown improvement in several statistical categories compared with their regular-season averages during that stretch, including team defense (85 points vs. 95.81), opponent's field-goal percentage (43% vs. 45%) and opponent's three-point field-goal percentage (24% vs. 34.7%). So much for Phil Jackson's belief that the Mavericks would be in trouble after Caron Butler suffered a season-ending knee injury in early January.
2. Ron Artest shouldn't let Mark Cuban's comments get to him. Of course, we're going to pay attention to what Cuban said to reporters: “Anything that puts the ball in Ron Artest’s hands is always a good thing. And you can tell him that I’ll even take him out for ice cream. Of all the choices you have on that team, you want Ron Artest making the decisions in the triangle." We'll ask Artest Artest for a rebuttal, or at least if he'd take Cuban up on that ice cream offer. And we'll see if Jackson uses Cuban's quote as an avenue to defend Artest or maybe to throw another zinger at Cuban. But Artest shouldn't let that consume him.
Even if Laker fans probably don't like when Cuban talks trash, he's right that in general terms Artest makes questionable decisions, takes mind-altering shots and can make any well-run fastbreak turn ugly. But Artest shouldn't allow Cuban to outline his fate. Since the All-Star break, Artest has exceeded his season average in points (10.35 vs. 8.4), shooting percentage (42.5% vs. 40.2%) and playing time (32.43 minutes vs. 29) in each contest. Artest has cited his improved conditioning and off-court training, while Bryant believes Artest has understood his role better by keeping things simple. Dallas guard Jason Kidd plans to match Artest, hoping that will bait him into taking shots outside the context of the offense. Artest made Phoenix pay both in the 2010 NBA playoffs and this season for their tendency to sag back, so he should take the same approach. But Artest feels he needs to prove something.
3. Kobe Bryant needs to continue elevating to playoff form. Bryant has posted numbers against Dallas dating to last season that would leave even his staunch supporters concerned. He has averaged only 17 points per game at a 40.8% shooting clip against Dallas since the the start of last season, his worst season average against any opponent. But don't consider that an indictment of what he's done against Dallas this season. The Lakers' 109-100 loss Jan. 19 to the Mavericks actually showed Bryant playing at an efficient rate (21 points on 10-of-18 shooting, 10 assists and four rebounds). But he statistically dropped in the Lakers' 96-91 victory March 12 against the Mavs when he scored 16 points on six-for-20 shooting. But that effort mostly points to his sprained left ankle, an injury he said proved to be the "scariest" among all the ankle sprains he's suffered in his 15-year career.
Over the next three games he averaged 17.33 points and shot 39.3%. Since then, Bryant has gone on a three-game tear, averaging 36.33 points on 48% shooting. His scoring output was partly boosted by the Lakers' 139-137 triple-overtime effort last week against Phoenix, but his improved shooting percentage, elevation and conditioning points to better health and a conscious decision to crank up his intensity. Expect Bryant, who will be guarded mostly by Shawn Marion, to shift up a gear against Dallas.
4. Performances from Lamar Odom and Jason Terry shouldn't decide the NBA's sixth man of the year award. This is the inevitable story line because both players have posted impressive numbers off the bench and fulfilled significant roles. Odom remains third on the team in scoring average (14.4 points) and rebounding (8.8) this season. He is shooting 53.7%, easily a career high. Meanwhile, Terry, who won the award in 2009, has averaged 16.4 points, 4.2 assists and 1.1 steals, second on the Mavericks in all three categories. But their roles are entirely different, making it misleading to compare how each of them does in this matchup.
"It's a totally different animal," Jackson said. "Jason is a critical moments player and plays well down the stretch with [Dirk] Nowitzki. They have a chemistry going and he's one of the keys to try to stop Dallas. It's the impact a player has on a team. Lamar has so many areas he's valuable -- assists and rebounds -- besides his scoring. Jason is valuable in his way, perhaps not in the same value in assists and rebounds. But it's hard to compare them, though."
The more important variable to measure involves how the teams' benches match up. No doubt, Odom and Terry will have a large part in determining that. Odom has proven to be the Lakers' most consistent player, while Terry's known as a Laker killer. He had 22 points on nine-of-15 shooting with seven assists in Dallas' victory in January, as well as other memorable performances, including a 30-point performance on 10 of 20 shooting last season and career-highs against the Lakers in three-point field goals (16 on March 15, 2009) and assists (16 on March 25, 2003). Holding Terry to 13 points on six-of-16 shooting in the Lakers' win March 12 surely proved instrumental. But so were Steve Blake's nine points and five assists, something The Times' Mike Bresnahan thought was his best game all season. Considering Dallas' depth, it's imperative the Lakers' bench holds its own.
5. The Lakers need to take advantage of their size. Dallas acquired 7-foot-0 Brendan Haywood and 7-1 Tyson Chandler with exacting intentions to match up with the Lakers' frontline in 7-footers Gasol and Bynum and the 6-10 Odom. The moves were at least good enough for Cuban to proclaim his team has enough size and depth to beat the Lakers. Assuming the Lakers stick to their game plan, that shouldn't be an issue. The Lakers are 3-0 when Bynum scores at least 19 points and 0-3 when he's held under that mark, meaning he needs to avoid foul trouble, something he couldn't do in the Lakers' win Sunday against New Orleans. Gasol scored 23 and 18 points, respectively, in both contests, but it's uncertain whether that can offset anything from Nowitzki, whom Jackson called "one of most prolific guys in the game."
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers Andrew Bynum is pressured by Maveriks Drew Gooden, left, and Jason Terry at the Staples Center Jan. 3, 2010. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest goes in for a reverse dunk against center Chris Kaman and the Clippers in the first half Friday night at Staples Center. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times