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Lakers return to center of attention

LOS ANGELES – The Dallas Mavericks had pressed the Los Angeles Lakers into the afternoon, even rallying past them for a few tense minutes, so Jason Terry was entitled to his moment of hubris. Forget that the Lakers eventually won, or that Kobe Bryant and Trevor Ariza upstaged Terry himself, the Mavericks had made it a game against the Western Conference's top team. On the road, too!

In Terry's mind, this could only bode well for the Mavs' future. And if the Mavericks should find themselves paired with the Lakers for the first round of the playoffs, as they're currently slotted to do?

"If it's the team we have to face down the line," Terry said, "we're confident we can make it a knockout series."

It should be noted, of course, that Terry didn't say which team he expected to get floored, and that's a good thing considering the biggest statement the Lakers made on Sunday came about 15 minutes after they left the court.

"I'll definitely be back this season," Andrew Bynum, the Lakers' injured center, said on his way out of the Staples Center.

Sidelined since tearing the medial collateral ligament of his right knee Jan. 31, Bynum hopes to move his rehab program from the treadmill to the court this week. If all goes well, he hopes to be back playing in "two or three weeks," which would leave him at least two weeks to prepare for the postseason. The Lakers' medical staff has cautioned Bynum that his return could still be as many as five weeks away, but even that should make him available for the start of the playoffs.

Bynum said he's been running pain-free on the treadmill while admitting his lateral movement needs to improve. "I'm very happy," he said. "I think I'm ahead of schedule. I just keep hoping things will go the right way and I won't have any setbacks."

The rest of the West should worry. The Lakers, like a year ago, are good enough to reach the NBA Finals without Bynum, having gone 16-4 in his absence this season. Adding their young 7-foot center just makes them that much longer and versatile.

The Mavericks had enough trouble contesting the Lakers' length and athleticism Sunday, and Bynum would at least give them reason to play their own center. If the Mavs learned anything from their 107-100 loss to the Lakers, it was that Erick Dampier can't guard Pau Gasol. On one of the game's first possessions, Gasol left Dampier flat-footed as he spun by him on the baseline for a lay-in and foul. Gasol went on to make all 10 of his shots in the first half and his contributions didn't end there.

"This team is the best interior passing team I've seen," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said, "and he's a big part of that."

The Mavericks wish their own injury report was as promising as that of Bynum's. Josh Howard missed his fifth consecutive game with a sore left ankle, and the team has been unwilling or unable to give a timeframe for his return. His absence is compounded by injuries to Devean George, who needs arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and is likely done for the season, and Jerry Stackhouse, who has played only 10 games because of problems with his right foot.

"We've got to get Josh back somehow," Dirk Nowitzki said.

Without Howard, the Mavericks have only two dependable scoring options: Nowitzki and Terry. Opposing teams can shade a second defender toward Nowitzki that much easier. The Mavericks, as Lakers coach Phil Jackson pointed out, have also become "a little more susceptible" defensively than they were two seasons ago when they won 67 games, in part because of age, but also because of their injuries. Thin on swingmen, Dallas watched as Ariza sprung free for a career-high 26 points.

The Mavericks erased their 15-point deficit in the second half thanks to Terry's hot shooting and a zone defense they employed that caused the Lakers to abandon their attempts to get the ball to Gasol. Jackson, however, merely ushered his starters back onto the floor, and, soon enough, Bryant was dropping in a 3-pointer and Ariza returned to slashing to the rim.

"They're a machine," Carlisle said. "Even without Bynum, there are some other problems they present."

If and when Bynum returns, the Lakers don't want Lamar Odom to lose his aggressiveness should he go back to the bench. Jackson also wasn't happy the Lakers, much like they did Thursday with the San Antonio Spurs, allowed the Mavericks to flirt with stealing the win. Still, overconfidence and an overcrowded frontcourt are nice problems to have.

Most of the Mavericks didn't want to look too far ahead to a possible first-round series with the Lakers, and for good reason. Their lead over the Phoenix Suns for the West's eighth and final playoff seed is down to four games, and the Mavericks also have a more difficult closing schedule than the Suns. And though they wouldn't say it publicly, the Mavs also would prefer to move up in the standings and avoid the Lakers. Their chances of escaping the first round brighten should they instead face the Spurs.

Terry, however, was buoyed by the Mavs' latest performance. "We don't avoid anyone," he said.

The way Terry sees it, the underdog Mavericks have nothing to lose if they open the postseason against the Lakers. "We like our chances," he said. "We match up pretty well with that team."

The Lakers might laugh at that. Bynum is on the mend, and they haven't lost their confidence or sight of the NBA's best record in his absence. Terry was right about one thing: Should the Mavericks return to Los Angeles for the playoffs, they'll get their knockout series.