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Lakers bench has a critical role in semifinals series against Dallas

May 1, 2011 |  7:02 pm

61094395On more than one occasion, Lakers forward Matt Barnes bit his tongue.

He bit it when reporters revisited Barnes' episode with Mavericks guard Jason Terry, whose push on Lakers guard Steve Blake on March 31 sparked Barnes to push him back, earn an ejection and ultimately a one-game suspension. He bit it when reflecting on his time with Golden State in 2007 when the Warriors upset the Dallas Mavericks in the first round as an eighth-seeded team. And he bit it when suggested he personally deliver one of his company T-shirts that reads "Matt Barnes Will Kill You ... If Ron Artest Doesn't First" to Terry himself.

"You guys are trying to get me started," Barnes said with a smile. "I can't do that yet."

Save that for on the court when the Lakers play Game 1 on Monday in their Western Conference semifinal series against Dallas. Save it for the stands at Staples Center where Barnes hopes plenty of Lakers fans wear his T-Shirts sold by Elusion Clothing. And save that perhaps when the Lakers hope they secure a third consecutive NBA championship. But for now, all the intrigue surrounding Barnes and Terry will have to rest with the media, or at least until competition sparks the two to further the animosity even more.

There's plenty more reasons, however, why there's attention surrounding Barnes and Terry. The play of each reserve unit will prove to be a significant factor in the playoff series.

"Their bench is No. 1 in scoring in the league," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said of Dallas' reserve unit. "I don't know if that means they're deeper, but they have a lot of depth on that team."

60085560-1The Mavericks' depth covers plenty of ground. Terry, who finished a distant second behind Lakers forward Lamar Odom for sixth man of the year, enjoys more dependable options than Odom has. Terry's 15.8 points and 4.1 assists per game in the regular season ballooned to a 17.3 points per game clip in the Mavericks' first-round series against Portland, including a 21-points-per-game average in the last four contests. Dallas forward Peja Stojakovic (9.5 points per game), who ranks fourth on the NBA's all-time three-point list, went through a streaky eight-of-21 clip through five games against Portland, but his 21-point effort and career playoff-tying-high five three-pointers in Game 2 proved largely instrumental in Dallas' victory. Point guard J.J. Barea (5.2 ppg, 2.5 apg) and 7-foot center Brendan Haywood (2.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg) round out a solid unit that easily outscored Portland's reserves, 207-125.

The Lakers offered plenty of ways for how to stop that threat, making it sound like a laundry list of basketball fundamentals.

Kobe Bryant: "Just for them to play well and stay within our offense and create some turnovers and get out in transition. Those are things they're really good at."

Jackson: "They're going to have to play defense. Their activity in their defense has been good in this series after the first game or two."

Odom: "Our mind-set doesn't change; share the basketball, play hard, play defense, execute, try to lock down and get as much production from everyone that we can possibly get."

That sounds simple enough, but it remains uncertain whether the Lakers' bench is capable of filling that job description. Odom won his sixth man of the year award by playing at a consistent rate in the regular season, but that didn't translate to the playoffs in their first-round series against New Orleans where he grabbed one rebound in Game 1, went one-of-seven in Game 4 and four-of-12 in Game 5. Barnes hasn't appeared as consistently aggressive as he once was since suffering a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee in early January. Blake, who missed Game 1 because of the chicken pox, has been uneven in his streaky shooting and strong ability to run the offense. And Lakers guard Shannon Brown hasn't had a consistent outside shot since a sizzling first month of the season where his 48% mark nowhere near reflects his season-wide average of 39.4% shooting.

That doesn't mean the Lakers' reserves haven't made noise. They outscored and outrebounded the Hornets' bench in every game the Lakers won. Their runs in Game 2 and Game 5 proved significant in setting the tone. And Odom can consistently fit in any role. Jackson revealed his lack of trust in the reserves, however, by having his starters play in the final minutes of Game 6 despite the team nursing a double-digit lead.

"Shannon and I talked about that," Barnes said. "We thought we had it handled. We thought we had the rest of the game."

But they didn't. Given the depth and danger the Mavericks bench presents, it's even less likely Jackson will afford the Lakers' reserves more trust. With plenty at stake, such as on-court trash talk, T-shirt sales and game results, they will soon find out whether they're capable of managing the large responsibility.

--Mark Medina

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Top photo: Lakers forward Matt Barnes blocks a shot by New Orleans power forward Carl Landry, though a blocking foul was called on Lakers forward Lamar Odom, during Game 3 of the Western Conference first-round playoff series. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / April 22, 2011

Bottom photo: Lakers guard Steve Blake looks to cut off a drive by Mavericks guard Jason Terry in the first half of a regular season game on March 12, 2011. Credit: Matthew Emmons / US Presswire / March 12, 2011