If you can make it past Chicago's opening tilt with the Hawks, a peach of a game, Los Angeles and Dallas should await on Monday night. Who's up for some series predictions?
The faces will look familiar in this first-round series between the Lakers and Mavericks, but the pairings will look a little strange. As you've no doubt heard from several outfits over the last few weeks, the Mavericks featuring Dirk Nowitzki, and the Lakers featuring Kobe Bryant, haven't met in the playoffs. The last time the Mavs and Lakers met, Dallas was featuring James Donaldson, and I was featuring two missing front teeth. So it's been a while.
The regular season featured some chippy back-and-forth between these two veteran teams, but both know the stakes this time around and expect the focus to be on high. Los Angeles doesn't want any part of having to win a significant Game 4 or even Game 6 in Dallas, and the Mavericks are clearly tired of being looked upon as postseason also-rans following their first-round exit last season and the sheer amount of playoff pundits (myself included) that picked Portland to oust Dallas in this year's opening round.
Dallas runs a good enough zone defense, and Phil Jackson will tell you that the Lakers' offense, when run properly, is at its best trying to do away with a zone defense. But he also tell you that Los Angeles' triple-post offense is a cure-all for both fear of public speaking and several of the maladies referenced by Old Man Howard in these pages. Even with Jackson's track record, it's hard to visualize the Lakers ably whipping the ball around with proper spacing when a Tyson Chandler-led zone stands around with its arms up. Then again, Los Angeles is so damn big. So long, too.
As impressed as we were with the opening series against Portland, Dallas still has some making up to do in our eyes. There are encouraging statistical trends and Xs-and-Os breakthroughs (coach Rick Carlisle knows his stuff) that aid in the Mavs' cause, and perhaps we are still underrating them too much. Certainly Dallas has a chance.
But Los Angeles has length, and a guy in Kobe Bryant that (when he's working within his team's offense the proper way) can match Dirk Nowitzki's ability to get to the line and put teams away down the stretch.
There's also that whole part about the Lakers being two-time defending champs.
My pick? Lakers in six.
Hey, there, sports fans! Welcome back to "PLAAAAAAAAAAYOFFS!" Boy, that first round was something else, huh? Chock full of buzzer beaters, controversy, brilliant performances, Hedo Turkoglu and Josh McRoberts. With the field now whittled down to eight teams, it's time for the conference semifinals. Who are the contenders and who are the pretenders? Who can run with the big dogs and who should stay on the porch? Who's more grizzled?
Here to offer made-up answers to these and other pressing questions about Lakers/Mavericks are 7-foot-4 Utah Jazz center-turned-celebrity motivational speaker Mark Eaton and 310-year veteran/olde-tyme crustbucket Ol' Man Howard!
Ol' Man Howard: Begin discussing Los Angeles and Dallas.
Mark Eaton: It's odd to think that Dallas, the third seed in the West, pulled off something of an upset by beating the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, but many observers felt Dallas would have a rough go against Nate McMillan's team. Their road sure doesn't get any easier in the second round, as they face a Los Angeles Lakers team that staved off an admirable Chris Paul performance in Round 1.
OMH: You've yet to say anything.
ME: Can Dirk Nowitzki do enough against tough matchups with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom to provide the scoring punch the Mavericks need? Can DeShawn Stevenson do enough to slow Kobe Bryant in the postseason after having some success guarding him this year? Might Rick Carlisle dust off little-used Corey Brewer to throw some extra length and fresh legs at the Black Mamba? Is Rodrigue Beaubois anything more than a figment of our collective imagination? Who is Trey Johnson?
OMH: Yes. No. Yes. No. I remain unsure.
ME: To me, it's Andrew Bynum's series. If he can continue to be a dominant low-block scorer and defender, getting the best of Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood, that's just one matchup too many for Dallas to lose. If the Mavs' centers can stand up to Bynum's bullying, they can push Los Angeles to a Game 7 … but even there, L.A.'s got home court. I don't know, Olie: I have a tough time seeing any way Dallas wins this series.
OMH: I know but one: Let the large reserve continue to crush defenders so the small nymph can run free, castin' spells and whatnot.
ME: The Lakers communicate well on defense, though.
OMH: Then all is lost. Lakers in six.
ME: I still love you, Dirk. Lakers in seven.
(Dan thinks the Lakers will win in six games.)
The regular season counts, but the postseason is where reputations are made. Tracy McGrady never won a playoff series and will always be seen as a disappointment. Derek Fisher lacks several fundamental basketball skills but will always be seen as a champion because he makes big shots when it counts. Chauncey Billups owes his entire nickname to the 2004 playoffs. The point being that playoff performance skews national perception of NBA players beyond all reason. In that vein, behold the BDL Reputations Index, your guide to what's at stake for the top names in the second round.
Kobe Bryant: The Black Mamba is at a point in his career where his quality play is not necessarily always the primary reason the Lakers win games. Against the Hornets, for instance, L.A. pulled through mostly because of the inside dominance of their big men. The Lakers hold a similar advantage in the paint against the Mavs, but they're also far more likely to need Bryant to step up in several games. Kobe is not the superstar he once was, but he's still enough of a force to be the top player on one of the league's best teams. A few failures in crunch time may harm that reputation considerably.
Pau Gasol: Last spring, Gasol's great play for the eventual champions caused him to be discussed as the most skilled big man in the NBA, and occasionally as the best overall. However, his series against the Hornets left a lot to be desired, with several weak plays at the rim causing the return of the unfortunate pun "Gasoft." Against Dallas, Pau is likely to be matched with Dirk Nowitzki, not exactly the most fearsome post defender in the world. Several strong performances would help many remember that, when he's on, Gasol is a uniquely talented power forward deserving of admiration.
Jason Kidd: The Lakers habitually struggle to defend point guards, to the point where most can freely assume that the opposing floor general will have a terrific series. In truth, though, they really only have problems with quick, penetrating point guards, the kind of player that Kidd hasn't been for several seasons now. That lack of speed doesn't mean he can't have a good series, though. And even if his strengths don't play to the Lakers' defensive weaknesses, a merely average series would cause many to claim that Kidd is coasting off his past reputation rather than his current abilities.
Shawn Marion: The Matrix is no longer the scorer he once was, but his defense and rebounding are still capable of making an impact for the Mavericks. At the same time, he still carries the air of past stardom. However, if Marion can surpass Lamar Odom's contributions in the role of do-everything hybrid forward, he may be able to make an easier transition from past star to key role player without seeming like a shell of his former self.
I pick the Lakers in six.