Five things to watch in Lakers-Mavericks series
1. Be ready for the war of words: It's the calm before the storm with the Lakers enjoying a day off Friday while they travel from New Orleans back to Los Angeles. But once preparation begins Saturday for the Lakers-Mavericks Western Conference semifinals matchup, plenty of soundbites will probably be thrown each other's way. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban may want to save up room in their checking account for inevitable league-imposed fines when they criticize the referees, each other and the opposing team's players.
But that's not the only subplot that highlights Dallas' contentiousness with L.A. The Lakers are almost a month removed from their 110-82 victory March 31st where Mavericks guard Jason Terry pushed Steve Blake to the ground, prompting Blake to get in his face and Lakers forward Matt Barnes to intervene.
All in all, five players were ejected in that game, Terry accused Barnes of being "as soft as Charmin toilet paper," and Barnes released two T-shirts through his clothing line including one that reads, "Matt Barnes will kill you if Ron Artest doesn't first," joking that could offset the costs for his one-game, without-pay suspension. Yep, this should be a fun series, with Barnes saying this two days after the incident:
"In Golden State, we showed how to beat Dallas," said Barnes, referring to his role in helping the Warriors beat the Mavericks as an eighth seed in the first round of the 2007 playoffs. "You go in there and take it right to their chin and they back down. I don't see anything has changed since then, so hopefully we have a chance to see them again."
2. The Lakers need to maintain their aggressiveness: The Mavericks have changed, however, since the Lakers last played them. Dallas' first-round matchup with Portland featured plenty of momentum swings, including Brandon Roy largely slashing Dallas 23-point lead in Game 4 and then surviving two close contests in Games 5 and 6. The Blazers may not have the same skill set as the Lakers, but the Mavericks overcame a huge psychological hurdle in advancing past the first round, a feat they had failed to do in three of the last four seasons entering the 2011 playoffs. The Mavericks have also improved their toughness, with the Dallas Morning News' Eddie Sefko observing how Dallas went on a run following Chris Johnson's hard foul on DIrk Nowitzki. So the Lakers shouldn't exactly expect the Mavericks will fall over.
But with the Lakers showing an increased toughness of their own, they shouldn't hold anything back. In a span of one week, the Lakers went from being considered a soft team to a team that led Hornets Coach Monty Williams to complain about its hard fouls, including Kobe Bryant's flagrant foul type 1 on Emeka Okafor. The Lakers are never going to be an enforcer type team, but Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol showcased more grit in their Game 5 victory against New Orleans by going on the offense than simply playing reactive basketball. In the same way opponents test the Lakers on how they will respond to physical contact, the Lakers need to test the Mavericks on how they'll respond to theirs.
3. The Lakers bench has a huge responsibility against Dallas. This story line isn't intriguing just because of the aforementioned incident between Terry and Barnes/Blake. It also isn't just riveting because Lamar Odom, the NBA's sixth man of the year honoree, will lead his unit against Terry, who was also considered in the running for the award. One of the Mavericks' biggest strengths is their their bench. The reserves outscored Portland's reserves 35-14 in Game 6. The unit will be bolstered by the possibility that starting forward Caron Butler could return at some point in the series after suffering what was believed to be a season-ending knee injury in January. And it could expose the Lakers' inconsistent bench, which has had a surprising dropoff from Lamar Odom and mixed success with Blake, Barnes and Shannon Brown. The Lakers' unit proved instrumental in their Game 2 victory and helped spark a run in their Game 5 victory, so the potential is there. But it'd be too much of a dicey proposition to hope for the best, considering Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic are the fourth and fifth leading scorers on Dallas.
4. The Lakers need to attack the Mavericks' zone defense the right way. The Lakers' triangle offense looks beautiful when it's run correctly, with balanced spacing, sharp cutting and quick ball movement. It looks horrible, however, when the Lakers don't set up proper post position, the backcourt chucks up three-pointers and Bryant runs everything on his own. The Lakers fell into that trap even more last season when the Suns threw a zone defense on them, leading them to take open three-pointers, become lazy in exploiting the cracks in the zone and losing patience in finding good shots.
With how smart Bryant has played through his injured left ankle, how clutch Fisher's been with his shot and how surprisingly dependable Ron Artest has proven to be on offense, their roles all enhanced when Gasol and Bynum played more aggressive and were given more opportunities in the post. Even though the Mavericks acquired 7-foot Brendan Haywood and 7-1 Tyson Chandler this offseason to help offset the Lakers' size advantages, Dallas still can't match the two L.A. big men in Bynum and Gasol, coupled with a 6-10 swingman in Odom. The Lakers' success always hinges on how well they use their inside game, but the importance is magnified even more because of the Mavericks' efficient zone defense.
5. The Lakers will have a different defensive test with Dallas. They can breathe a sigh of relief that they don't have to worry about Chris Paul shredding them on the pick-and-roll anymore. But L.A.'s discipline on defense will still be necessary in offsetting Dallas' strengths. There's no question Fisher will have an easier time guarding 38-year-old Jason Kidd, but his impact points more to his running the offense than actually scoring. Kidd averaged 21 points and hit nine three-pointers in the first two games against Portland, but his 14-assist effort in Game 5 epitomized the danger he brings on offense.
The Lakers will also need to focus on stopping the Mavericks' front line from hitting too many jumpers, a strategy they executed with mixed success with New Orleans' Trevor Ariza and Carl Landry. If Gasol gives any sliver of space to Dirk Nowitzki, he will nail the jumper. He averaged 22 points on 46.3% shooting against the Lakers, a decrease from the 27.3 points he averaged this season on 51.7% shooting. So the emphasis will be not so much worrying about stopping him, but minimizing the damage he can present.
Prediction: Lakers in six. Dallas demonstrated against Portland that it's capable of beating teams on the road and I wouldn't be surprised should the Mavericks split the first two games. But the Lakers are equally equipped at stealing road games and simply have too much size for Dallas to handle.
-- Mark Medina
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Top photo: Lakers guard Steve Blake, left, and Dallas guard Jason Terry confront each other during the second half of the Lakers' 110-82 victory March 31 at Staples Center. Both players were ejected following the play. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times
Bottom photo: Lakers forward Matt Barnes, front, tries to put up a shot over Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki during the first half of the Lakers' 110-82 victory Thursday at Staples Center. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times