Lakers embracing magnitude of matchup with Mavericks
The squeaking from the Lakers' shoes remained audible throughout the tail end of a five-on-five scrimmage.
It sounded as loud as Derek Fisher's swished jumper that sparked an expletive from an opposing player on the reserves. It sounded as loud as the shrieking whistle when Shannon Brown fouled Luke Walton when he drove into the lane. And it sounded as loud as the cheer let out when Pau Gasol's winning shot ended a practice that Coach Phil Jackson described as "high velocity."
Jackson had planned for Wednesday's practice to be more intense with the Lakers in a three-day stretch since their last game, a 102-84 victory Sunday against the New Orleans Hornets. With a day off Monday and a lighter session Tuesday, Jackson had earlier expressed concern about how the Lakers would play with the same energy in their matchup Thursday with the Dallas Mavericks as they have in their 15-1 run since the All-Star break. That's because their next game could have significant implications when it comes to playoff seedings, with the Lakers (53-20) holding a one-game lead over Dallas (52-21) going into the Mavericks' game against the Clippers on Wednesday night and trailing the first-place San Antonio Spurs (57-17) by 3 1/2 games in the Western Conference standings.
"It's as important as the last game we played against Dallas," Jackson said, referencing the Lakers' 96-91 victory over the Mavericks on March 12, which ended a 4-1 trip. "It was a game we keyed on our schedule and have guys thinking about it. It creates an opportunity to get some space between us and Dallas but it's still not the end, obviously."
A win by Dallas on Thursday would give the Mavericks a 2-1 lead over the Lakers in the regular-season series, but that does not mean they would have home-court advantage if the teams finish with the same record. That's because the Lakers have clinched the Pacific Division title, and that's more important than head-to-head matchups. The Mavericks would have to pass San Antonio to clinch the Southwest Division. Because the Spurs held a 4 1/2-game lead over Dallas going into Wednesday, that seems unlikely to happen.
The Lakers surely maintained their long-term view on the season with Bryant sitting out to rest his surgically repaired right knee and sprained left ankle. But here's where the Lakers are narrowly focusing on Dallas. Fisher, who also often rests in the interest of staying healthy, took extra shots Wednesday and talked with assistant coaches Chuck Person and Jim Cleamons at length. No one uttered anything about the possibility of catching San Antonio. And Jackson implored his team to crank up the velocity during their scrimmage in hopes that that would prepare the Lakers to match Dallas' speed without making mistakes.
"Around this time, you're starting to see games that will become big games," Bryant said. "You're trying to build rhythm and consistency. All these games are good measuring sticks to see how we're going to go into the playoffs."
The Lakers' resurgent defense -- led by Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest's improved offense, Bryant's increased aggressiveness and improved health, Gasol and Odom's consistency and renewed energy -- has proved to be good enough so far. That, of course, won't guarantee that the Lakers can end Dallas' four-game winning streak; contain Dirk Nowitzki, whom Jackson called "one of most prolific guys in the game"; prevent Shawn Marion from having another season-high performance; or stop reserve Jason Terry from having a selling point for sixth man of the year. But as the Lakers demonstrated during Wednesday's practice and with their attitude toward Dallas, they're ready.
"Some runs are different because sometimes you win games because you're just hot and you're just shooting the hell out of the ball," Bryant said. "Other times you're doing it because of the defense. Sometimes it's a combination of both. In this instance, we're just minimizing mistakes. We're just executing well. This is not something where we're on fire or hot or anything like that. We're just doing our jobs the right way."
-- Mark Medina
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