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Looking at why Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom struggled guarding Dirk Nowitzki

May 4, 2011 |  1:03 pm

If it were up to Lakers forward Ron Artest, he'd be the one guarding Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki in Game 2. It's the kind of matchup Artest revels in, knowing that how he performs against a particular player could prove instrumental in the game's outcome.

"Dirk can play," Artest said. "But I'm definitely a better defender than guys on other teams that guard him. I would say I'm a better defender. I'm not going to say that he can't score, that I can hold him to zero points. ... I mean, he hits jumpers over 7-footers anyway. But there's other things I could do to make that work in my advantage."

The Lakers could surely use the help, considering their strategy in mixing in Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom didn't exactly work out in the team's 96-94 Game 1 loss Monday to the Mavericks. Nowitzki scored 28 points on 11-of-22 shooting, while the Mavericks shot 56.8% in the second half. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson wouldn't reveal his contingency plans, but he at least acknowledged that Artest guarding Nowitzki for at least some of the time remains a possibility. That's progress, considering Jackson's fear heading into Game 1 "that if you overcompensate for Dirk, you're going to end up allowing other people to get involved that can also spark this team."

Regardless of what the Lakers do in Game 2, it'll have to be a better effort than in Game 1, with Gasol playing horrific defense on Nowitzki and Odom having mixed results. The lasting image of Gasol's play on Nowitzki might be his ill-conceived foul off an inbounds pass that gave Nowitzki two free throws en route to the Mavericks taking a 95-94 lead with 19 seconds remaining. But Gasol's defense on Nowitzki rarely worked out, making his 15 points on five-of-10 shooting fairly useless.

There were times Gasol was a second too late in defending Nowitzki. He was a step behind when Nowitzki cut above the lane, received a pass from Jason Kidd and drilled a 13-footer with 9:51 remaining in the third quarter. Gasol was too fixated on switching with Kidd after Nowitzki set a screen on Kobe Bryant, allowing Nowitzki an open look at the baseline for a 17-footer with six minutes left in the third quarter.

Even when Gasol gave barely an inch of space, Nowitzki still punished him, beginning with a 19-foot jumper on the team's first possession. The same thing happened when Gasol heavily guarded Nowitzki on the following possession on the far baseline, which resulted in Nowitzki nailing a six-foot fadeaway. And when Gasol shut off Nowitzki's driving lane, he still pulled up and canned a 14-footer to cut the Lakers' lead to 14-12 with 5:15 remaining.

The way Odom approached playing Nowitzki on defense proved different in one subtle way. He put a body on him. When Nowitzki posted up on Odom at the beginning of the second quarter, Odom gave him little space and fronted his post-up moves. That forced Nowitzki into pump-faking before letting out an off-balance 14-footer. The same thing happened when Odom shut off Nowitzki's driving lane early in the second quarter, prompting him to toss up an off-balance 12 foot jumper that rimmed out. And when Odom and Gasol doubled on him when Nowitzki drove the lane, his layup with 4:28 left in the second quarter rimmed out. Odom's block on Nowitzki's putback with 3:53 remaining exemplified his physical play as his long wing span and body positioning shut off a good angle at the basket.

Refusing to throw the kitchen sink at Nowitzki proved disastrous, as Odom found out when he was off balance in contesting a 21-foot jumper that gave the Mavericks a 27-25 lead with 11:07 remaining in the second quarter, when Nowitzki blew by him for a left-handed layup with three seconds left in the second quarter, and when Odom didn't provide any physical contact on Nowitzki's off-balance 14-footer with 11:11 left in the fourth quarter. Odom also suffered some lapses similar to Gasol, where he simply didn't guard Nowitzki, allowing him to sink a 26-foot three-pointer that cut the Lakers' lead to 80-79 with 9:03 remaining in the game.

But that tactic won't guarantee success. Odom gave Nowitzki very little room to operate and didn't appear off balance during the Maverick's series of pump fakes and jab steps before sinking a 12-foot jumper that cut the Lakers' lead to 90-87 with 4:52 left in the fourth quarter. The same held true on a shot that slashed the Lakers' edge to 94-93 with 40 seconds remaining; Nowitzki bruised through Odom's shoulder and swished a nine-foot fallaway.

Nowitzki rarely will miss an open shot, such as his 17-footer that rimmed out with 5:01 remaining in the second quarter and his 26-foot three-pointer that hit iron at the 1:42 mark -- despite Odom giving him space on both plays -- or when Nowitzki's post-up on Odom with 4:16 left in the game gave him room for an 11-foot fadeaway that rimmed out.

So where does Artest fit in to this equation? Well, for all the anxiety the Lakers felt about Nowitzki hitting off-balance shots, he also had lots of open looks. Considering the tight margin of victory in Game 1 and the fact that Nowitzki entered the series averaging 10.2 points in the fourth quarters of  Dallas' first-round matchup with Portland, it could prove to be the difference in the Lakers tying the series.

-- Mark Medina

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