Matchups to watch in Lakers-Mavericks series
It's not usual for NBA teams to play zone defense, but the Mavericks have added a few extra wrinkles this season in hopes that it takes advantage in Dallas' length with two 7-footers in Tyson Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki and a wide wingspan in Shawn Marion.
The Mavericks' statistical impact on defense is fairly modest, allowing a 10th-best 96.01 points per game and allowing opponents to shoot an 8th-best 45% from the field. But given the Lakers' initial struggles playing against Phoenix's zone defense last season in the Western Conference Finals, it's imperative that the Lakers don't make the same mistakes in attacking it.
"Just getting the ball inside through penetration and through post play," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant offered as a solution to attacking the zone. "Swinging the ball around the perimeter will only get you so far."
The Lakers didn't exactly follow that formula against Phoenix, using the zone as an excuse to fire open outside shots, which led to stagnant movement. That's why it's critical that the Lakers play against the zone exactly the way Bryant and forward Pau Gasol outlined it.
"Moving the ball and working the ball inside-out," Gasol said. "That's how you open it up with penetration with a pass or a dribble."
2. Pau Gasol vs. Dirk Nowitzki Gasol struggled at times covering Hornets forward Carl Landry because he allowed too many open looks into the lane and failed in consistently forcing him to become a jump shooter. Forcing Nowitzki to shoot jumpers won't be the right approach, considering he's averaged 27.3 points, thanks to a solid mid-range jumper and a high free-throw percentage (89%).
"It should be challenging," Gasol said. "He's a very good and productive player."
Nowitzki shows his productivity in various ways, shooting 54% from the restricted area and 46% in mid-range jumpers, according to NBA Statscube. Lakers forward Lamar Odom added that Nowitzki poses an extra danger because he often posts up in the middle of the court instead of on the block, which would force Gasol to play Nowitzki differently than any other post player. Considering that the Lakers often emphasize having their front line to remain close to the basket, Gasol will have to extend his defensive range to offset Nowitzki's production.
"It's a big challenge for Pau," Bryant said. "It's different than guarding anybody else that he's played. Dirk can post up, can face up, can handle [the ball] and obviously he shoots the three ball. It's a big challenge defensively. "But it's a challenge for Dirk down at the other end as well. You're not going to find another guy in the league like Pau that can shoot with both hands, and post up and face up as well.
"It's a very interesting matchup."
3. Bryant/Derek Fisher vs. Jason Kidd
It's very rare the the 36-year-old Fisher can tout being the younger guard out of his defensive assignment, but he can boast about that fact matching up with the 38-year-old Kidd. Fisher won't have to worry about tiring his legs chasing a speedy Chris Paul through endless pick-and-rolls, but that doesn't minimize the stakes.
"Even though you don't strategize for him offensively," Fisher said, "you still have to play him as a an impact player because of how he plays the game."
That's because Kidd's impact points more to him 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.
"He runs their team extremely well and is one of the best to ever do it," Bryant said of Kidd. "He hits timely shots and when he scores when a team needs big baskets. He might have four points, but they might be the biggest four points of the whole night. We have to know when to defend him in terms of attacking him offensively."
Both Bynum and Odom have familiarity with Chanlder, with Bynum saying he worked out with Chandler a "few summers ago" and Odom playing with him on Team USA during the 2010 FIBA World Championships.
"It's always fun competing to play guys with you played in the summer or if you call each other friends growing up as a kid," Odom said. "It's always a little bit more fun to beat a so-called friend."
The Lakers' frontline played more aggressively and physical during their first-round series against New Orleans, a critical factor considering Chandler believes he'll withstand it and his revelation that he's always dreamed of beating the Lakers. Bynum doesn't believe the Mavericks acquiring Chandler or Brendan Haywood validates Mark Cuban's contention that Dallas has enough size to beat the Lakers, but their ability to spread the floor still adds a new wrinkle.
"We're both going at it," Bynum said of he and Chandler. "Offensively, he's going for lobs, setting screens and going for the boards. It's a lull for me defensively because I have to watch him all the time and watch the ball."
The storyline has been pretty well established, with Terry shoving Steve Blake in the Lakers' 110-82 victory March 31 against Dallas prompting Barnes to intervene and ultimately serve a one-game suspension. The back-and-forth has continued with Terry questioning Barnes' toughness, Barnes touting his role in Golden State's first-round upset over the Mavericks in 2007 as an eighth-seed and also serves as an appropriate backdrop to Barnes' recently released T-Shirts titled, "Matt Barnes will kill you...if Ron Artest doesn't first."
There's no question that contentiousness will set the tone, but from an X's and O's standpoint it's critical how Barnes defends Terry. He finished a distance second behind Odom for the league's sixth man of the year award by averaging 15.8 points and 4.1 assists in the regular season and 17.3 points and 3.8 assists so far in the playoffs. Against the Lakers, Terry shot 75% in shots that came from the restricted area and 43% from three-point range, while going only 34% from the field off mid-range jumpers. It wouldn't hurt for Barnes and Blake to carry that chippy play, but it's equally important to make sure they close out on him in the perimeter and receive the proper help in stopping his shots in the lane.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: The Dallas Mavericks will often finish a game with (from left) power forward Dirk Nowitzki, reserve guard Jason Terry, point guard Jason Kidd, small forward Shawn Marion and center Tyson Chandler, providing a powerful combination of size, athleticism and offensive firepower. Credit: Mike Stone / Reuters