After starting their NBA title defense in brutal fashion, the Dallas Mavericks are playing superb defensively and are once again looking like championship contenders. Their turnaround, however, has largely come against struggling teams without elite scorers.
That's about to change.
In a rematch of last season's Western Conference semifinals, the Mavericks go for a sixth straight win Monday night against the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant, who is in the midst of a remarkable scoring binge.
Dallas (8-5) opens a four-game road trip after a record-setting performance in Saturday's 99-60 victory over Sacramento. The Mavericks jumped out to a 52-23 halftime lead and ended up allowing the fewest points in franchise history while limiting the Kings to 25.6 percent shooting.
"It's all dictated on our defense,'' said Jason Terry, second on the team in scoring at 14.9 points per game. "We want to play great defense and get stops.''
The Mavericks have been doing a lot of that lately, allowing an average of 77.6 points on 37.7 percent shooting during their five-game winning streak.
Dallas has come a long way since allowing an average of 108.0 points in opening the season with losses to Miami, Denver and Oklahoma City. Part of this stems from its offseason additions - including Lamar Odom, Vince Carter and Delonte West - growing into their new roles, while some of the turnaround can be attributed to weak competition
The Mavericks' last five games have come against New Orleans, Detroit, Boston, Milwaukee and Sacramento - teams with a combined record of 18-42. They've won the last two with such ease that Dirk Nowitzki and his fellow starters have had the luxury of resting for the fourth quarter.
They'll likely face a much bigger challenge against the Lakers (9-5), although they didn't have much trouble with them in last season's playoffs.
Dallas, which dropped two of three to Los Angeles in the regular season, swept the Lakers, finishing them off with a 122-86 demolition that saw both Odom - then a Laker - and Andrew Bynum earn ejections.
Nowitzki averaged 25.3 points on 57.4 percent shooting and 9.3 rebounds in the four playoff games, while Bryant averaged 23.3 points and got little help from Pau Gasol, who averaged 12.5 points.
Although Bryant didn't have much success against the Mavericks last May, he's been having no trouble lately.
The 13-time All-Star has notched four consecutive games of 40 or more points. It's the first time an NBA player hit the 40-point mark in four straight since Bryant did it five times from March 16-25, 2007.
Despite Bryant's scoring exploits, the Lakers suffered a 102-94 loss to the Clippers on Saturday, snapping a five-game winning streak. Bryant finished with 42 points on 14 of 28 shooting and made 12 of 14 free throws.
He felt the game was lost, however, by the Lakers' inability to control the glass. The Lakers, second in the league in rebounding at 45.7 per game, were edged 50-42 by the NBA's third-worst rebounding team.
"That's the area that really killed us," Bryant said.
Los Angeles could again have some trouble on the boards against Dallas, which is averaging 45.9 rebounds in its last seven games, fourth-best in the NBA.
Odom, a proficient rebounder during his time with the Lakers, hasn't had much to do with the Mavericks' success on the boards.
After spending the last seven seasons in Los Angeles, Odom requested a trade in December after learning the Lakers wanted to include him in a trade for New Orleans superstar Chris Paul. A day later, Los Angeles shipped him to Dallas for a first-round draft pick and an $8.9 million trade exception.
Odom was instrumental to the Lakers' championships in 2009 and '10 and was named the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year last season, averaging 14.4 points and 8.7 rebounds.
He is struggling mightily in his first season in Dallas, however, averaging 6.8 points on 31.2 percent shooting and 5.0 rebounds.