By now, you've surely heard that this series is the first time that the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers have faced off in the playoffs during the respective careers of stars Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki. This fact is about as improbable as it seems. Dating back to 2001, when the Mavericks returned to the playoffs after a decade absence, only the San Antonio Spurs have played more series against Western Conference foes than either Dallas or the Lakers:
25 - SAS
24 - LAL
20 - DAL
14 - PHX
11 - SAC
10 - DEN
6 - HOU, MIN, POR
5 - MEM
4 - NOH
3 - SEA, OKC
2 - GSW, LAC
The Lakers and the Spurs have played five times in the postseason, including every year from 2001 through 2004. Meanwhile, the Mavericks have faced their Texas rivals five times as well, a number closer to what you'd expect between Dallas and the Lakers. Considered from another perspective, the Lakers have faced 10 of the 14 West teams at least once in the playoffs in the last 11 years. The other exceptions are the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, who have combined to play fewer than half as many series as the Mavericks. So it's safe to say that this is an overdue showdown between the two remaining traditional West powers in this year's playoffs.
WHEN THE LAKERS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 89.6 possessions per 48 minutes (20th NBA), 84.2 (13th) playoffs
Lakers Offensive Rating: 112.4 points per 100 possessions (7th NBA), 115.4 (1st) playoffs
Dallas Defensive Rating: 106.7 points per 100 possessions (9th NBA), 108.1 (11th) playoffs
Despite a subpar series from Pau Gasol, the Lakers' offense wasn't to blame for the fact that they needed six games to finish off the New Orleans Hornets. The Lakers were more efficient than any other team in the opening round thanks largely to the efforts of the team's role players. Ron Artest and Derek Fisher, the Lakers' last two options on offense, combined to average 21.1 points--up from 15.3 in the regular season. Artest made 55.6 percent of his two-point attempts and Fisher was accurate on his rare long-range attempts, knocking down threes at a 55.5 percent clip. Their performance was an unexpected bonus the Lakers would love to get again in this series.
Surely, most of Dallas' game planning for this series will be focused on worrying about Kobe Bryant. Bryant struggled against the Mavericks during the regular season, in large part because of 1-of-10 shooting from downtown. In the most recent meeting, Rodrigue Beaubois and Jason Kidd shared defensive responsibilities against Bryant, with Shawn Marion filling in at times. Even though Beaubois has recovered from a sprained left foot that left him inactive for the first five games of Dallas' series with the Portland Trail Blazers, he is unlikely to see much action after giving way to DeShawn Stevenson late in the regular season. Stevenson, a defensive specialist, is a much better matchup for Bryant that the undersized but speedy Beaubois.
Because Stevenson is an offensive liability, however, Kidd will likely be assigned Bryant down the stretch. In the March 31 game, he held Bryant to 4-of-12 shooting by daring him to shoot the three. That's a risky strategy, but ultimately the right one given Bryant shot just 32.3 percent on threes during the regular season. Kidd tends to play well against bigger guards because of his strength, but when Bryant goes to the block he should have enough airspace to get off turnaround jumpers.
The Lakers had more success against Dallas going inside to Gasol, who shot 54.5 percent from the field. The matchups are more favorable for Gasol when he's at power forward alongside Andrew Bynum, forcing Dirk Nowitzki to defend him in the post. That's not where Nowitzki is most comfortable, so Gasol should be able to make things happen in the low block. Then again, we figured that going into the series with New Orleans and Carl Landry was able to neutralize Gasol offensively. The Lakers need the "Black Swan" Gasol in this series.
Gasol also figures to make things happen on the offensive glass, having come up with nine offensive boards in the three games between the teams. Then again, the Mavericks faced a superior offensive rebounding team in the Blazers and more than held their own, holding Portland to an offensive rebounding rate below league average.
Dallas did not end up running much zone in the series with the Blazers, possibly because the Mavericks coaching staff feared that that Portland would find holes in the zone over time. If that was the case, we probably won't see the zone in this series either, but it could be effective as a change of pace, especially against the Lakers' second unit.
WHEN DALLAS HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.6 possessions per 48 minutes (19th NBA), 81.6 (15th) playoffs
Dallas Offensive Rating: 111.8 points per 100 possessions (8th NBA), 114.4 (2nd) playoffs
Lakers Defensive Rating: 105.5 points per 100 possessions (6th NBA), 105.3 (8th) playoffs
Dallas was right on the Lakers' heels for the top spot in Offensive Rating during the first round of the playoffs, torching the Blazers' defense with hot outside shooting (the Mavericks' 38.0 percent accuracy beyond the arc in the series ranked third in the league) and taking care of the basketball against a Portland team that was one of the league's best at forcing turnovers in the regular season.
The matchup at this end of the floor will turn on the Lakers' ability to deal with Dallas' pick-and-roll game featuring Nowitzki. As our Sebastian Pruiti noted on NBA Playbook, the Blazers never found an effective answer despite trying just about everything over the course of six games. In general, the Lakers are much better at dealing with roll men (per Synergy Sports, they allowed them 0.93 points per play during the regular season, good for fifth in the league; Portland was 29th at 1.11 points per play). However, Chris Paul exposed the fact that the Lakers' pick-and-roll defense has its own issues at times. It was Gasol whom Paul abused most during the first round, and he must do a better job of cutting off the ballhandler before getting back to Nowitzki. Expect the Lakers to utilize a third defender to deny penetration more frequently than Portland did. Because of the Lakers' length and their sound rotations, they can do more to compensate while still getting back out to defend the Mavericks' shooters.
The Lakers are less vulnerable to Nowitzki's size than most opponents. Gasol and Lamar Odom should be able to contest Nowitzki's shots when he operates one-on-one. During the regular season, the Lakers did a solid job on Nowitzki, who shot barely better than 50 percent on two-point attempts (he was at 53.8 percent overall).
A reliable second option on offense has been an Achilles' heel for Dallas all season long. Various players took turns stepping up in the opening round, but Kidd's high scoring is probably in the past. That makes it all the more important that the Mavericks get productive play off the bench from Jason Terry, the team's closer on the perimeter. Terry scored 22 points in Dallas' lone regular-season win over the Lakers, but combined for just 18 in the other two matchups. He was struggling even before he was ejected for the last game between the teams.
Meanwhile, Marion has what seems like a difficult matchup against Artest, but he was highly effective during the season series, averaging 18.7 points on 59.5 percent shooting. Marion took advantage of Artest's occasional defensive lapses and transition opportunities to get easy buckets. Watch for him to post up the L.A. guards when they are forced to crossmatch in the early offense.
During the regular season, the Mavericks were the league's most consistent team. In this series, however, I expect the Lakers to be more predictable. Their grab bag of offensive options will allow them to score efficiently no matter the matchups or who's hot on a given night. Dallas, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to assess after Nowitzki. The Lakers will make the Mavericks' role players beat them, hopefully from the outside. That may burn the Lakers a couple of times, but ultimately it's the high-percentage play and one that will allow the Lakers to move on.
L.A. Lakers in 6
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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