Monday, May 2, 2011

Los Angeles Lakers vs Dallas Mavericks Playoff Preview: Goliath, Meet David

Worst part of the playoffs? History. It's an annoying tidbit of information to give depth to a particular match up, but far too often used as a crutch in analysis. For instance, some people picked the Trailer Blazers to beat the Mavericks not because of their match ups in the post and at the guard positions, but because Dallas has a bad history in the playoffs. It's lazy and we're hearing even more now with the Lakers and Mavs squaring off in Round 2:

Kobe scored 62 against the Mavs through three quarters in 2005 -- even though that years Mavs team went to the NBA Finals and Kobe's Lakers blew a 3-2 series lead to the Suns and took a seat after the first round. And only two players remain from that Mavs team.

LA has beaten Dallas in the last three playoff series -- even though the last series was back in 1988 when Roy Tarpley was supposed to be the 90s Dirk.

Forgoing history, Dallas and LA are actually surprisingly close. Lakers were seventh in offensive efficiency (107.9), Mavs were eighth (107.6). Lakers were sixth in defensive efficiency (101.3), Mavs were seventh (102.3). It's amazing how these two teams are so close, given their completely different styles.

As most know, the Lakers are at their best when Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are allowed to freely operate in the paint. Kobe Bryant is still the headliner, but the two bigs LA throws down in the paint truly carry the Lakers not just offensively, but defensively as well. Without Bynum in the lineup, the Lakers are forced to tap into their only true source of bench production in Lamar Odom and feature a front line without a true rim protector. Gasol and Odom do their best to swat shots, but both are either bad to average post defenders. Bynum changes that, and gives the Lakers the most formidable front line in the NBA, Memphis Grizzles notwithstanding.

The Mavericks do it almost the other way, jump shooting their way to eventual better looks at the rim with all-around team production from key role guys. Funny enough, both teams are at their worst when its stars (Dirk, Kobe) are one-man-bands. The difference though, is that when Dirk takes over games, he's usually successful and draws ire from the media when he ISN'T carrying the Mavericks on his back. Kobe is brandished whenever he shoots around 25-30 shots, as whispers of ball hog float around the interwebs. Perhaps the difference comes from the fact that Kobe can control an entire possession, from bringing the ball up the court to initiating an offense while Dirk is at the bevy of his teammates' ability to give him the ball in the mid-post. Just an interesting aside.

Unfortunately, the regular season ultimately does not lie (I.E. 2011 Memphis Grizzles vs Spurs/Thunder, Mavs in 2007) and Dallas ultimately has no realistic shot of conquering the Lakers. In that final meeting in late March, the LA duo bulldozed Tyson Chandler as if he were Shawn Bradley and the Mavericks backcourt completely imploded. The only way for the Mavs to beat the Lakers is if the Lakers beat themselves by ignoring Gasol and Bynum and Kobe/Ron Artest/Derek Fisher hijack the offense. Too many things have to fall right in line for Dallas -- Dirk has to be brilliant, Chandler has to stay out of foul trouble and play even better defense than Round 1, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd have to continue Round 1 shooting and Shawn Marion has to check Kobe. For the Lakers? Feed the ball inside and limit the scoring of Jason Terry. That's about it. They don't have to necessarily stop Dirk because it's been documented with this team that you can beat the Mavs with Dirk going off close to 30. The key is (and always has been) secondary scoring.

This is why I unfortunately pick the Lakers to win in five games. I know that sounds overly harsh, but the only scenarios I can imagine the Mavericks winning is if Bynum/Gasol combo fail to score at least 35 points and Dallas blazing from behind the arc. The Mavs showed they can be physical in Round 1, but that was the Blazers and a Portland frontline that only had LaMarcus Aldridge to be feared (least you forget Dirk guarded Marcus Camby and his less that four points per game scoring average.)

What could swing the pendulum back toward the Mavs? Rodrique Beaubouis can be a secret weapon employed to attack Fisher, Steve Blake and  the Shannon Brown guard rotation. And here's my ultimate "throw it out there, take it or tell me I'm dumb" strategy: Dallas playing Dirk at the three (small forward) for small stretches in the game.

If the Lakers roll out their lineup of Fisher, Bryant, Artest, Gasol and Bynum the Mavericks could conceivably counter that with Kidd, Marion, Dirk, Chandler and Haywood. I'll let you pick the pieces of your head off the floor, but let me explain:

This would easily be the best defensive lineup for Dallas against LA's twin beats. Chandler on his own can't tangle with Bynum's strength but against Gasol? He has a better chance. Haywood's size and defensive skill set was practically made for Bynum's old school post game. Dirk could be hidden on defense by guarding Artest, since he's rarely a big piece during the Lakers offensive movement. We saw in Round 1 Dirk guard Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum for brief stretches without much damage done. With Artest's wonky three-point shot and his greatest strength (posting up) taken away, he provides less of a threat and allows Marion to fully commit to Kobe without having Jason Kidd or Jason Terry be forced to guard Artest and be bullied on the low block.

Of course, this lineup has severe offensive limitations. The only outside shooter around Dirk is Kidd, which would allow the Lakers to use Kidd's man to send the double and allow Marion, Chandler or Haywood to catch the ball out of their comfort zones. Perhaps Marion can exploit the doubling down on Dirk with some dive cuts and Chandler and Haywood could create pin downs for easy dunks, but that's hopeful thinking. I'm not saying this lineup would completely work, but I think it deserves a shot, especially when Dallas will likely need to change something from the norm because the norm isn't working against LA.

Some see the Hornets ability to take two from the Lakers as a sign of weakness from the champs. But you must remember that it took two, transcendent, unbelievable, brilliant, life-altering performances from Chris Paul and some surprising outside shooting from Trevor Ariza. When Paul was just a mere All-Star mortal the Lakers won and they won convincingly.

My heart is telling me I'm wrong, that Dallas will split the road and home sets, then take the next two to win the series in six games. But my logical, basketball brain cannot compute. I hope, pray, that I am wrong.

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  1. Before I read this article I was going to tell you why the Lakers were going to win in 5. And then you did it 1000x better than I could.