But that was then.
Since blowing a 23-point lead in Game 4 of their initial-round Western Division series against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Dallas Mavericks have demonstrated the resiliency of a championship team. The Maverick's 96-94 comeback victory over the Los Angeles Lakers Monday night was more confirmation of the mental toughness that's becoming a hallmark of this team.
In fact, it was the Lakers – winners of the past two NBA crowns – who looked uncharacteristically lost on their home court. In the fourth quarter, the Lakers had two key turnovers and a bad foul by Pau Gasol in the last half-minute which contributed to a huge comeback by the Mavericks – who erased a 16-point deficit.
Help from the bench
And even with L.A. outrebounding Dallas 44-40, the Mavericks spread the ball efficiently through a balanced offensive attack, with five players scoring in double-figures. Guard Jason Kidd has proven critical to Dallas’ fortunes since they acquired him from the New Jersey Nets in 2008. The number-two all-time NBA assist leader logged eleven of them in this game. And with strong performances off the bench by forward Peja Stojakovic (10 points) and guard Jason Terry (15 points), the Mavericks' starters got some additional rest. In fact, the Dallas bench as a whole put up 40 points to the Lakers’ 25.
Lakers’ guard Kobe Bryant shot the ball in his usual brilliant way, but he seems to have had difficulty dishing the ball. He was actually the only starter on both teams who didn’t have a single assist. Not one. And one of the few attempts he made in the last 30 seconds wound up in the hands of Mavericks’ guard Jason Terry.
But towering over his competitors was Dirk Nowitzki, who had 14 rebounds, 13 of them off the defensive glass. The seven-footer has been a rock during the playoffs, with just under 28 points and nearly 9 rebounds per game. Nowitzki is highly versatile in that he can play either center or forward – and can post up or hit the three-ball with equal deftness. And supplemented by the refreshingly solid play of center Tyson Chandler, who added 11 points and 9 rebounds in the game, the Mavericks have managed to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of L.A.’s Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol. And Andrew Bynum, the Lakers’ center, needs better production than just 8 points and 5 rebounds in 29 minutes.
Is Kobe ready?
As in any series of this magnitude, there are always intangibles that play key roles. Kobe has had difficulty in the past few postseasons with last-second shots, including Monday night's game against Dallas. And Nowitzki, for his part, has proved to be superior in that sense. Kobe himself said earlier this week, as he sat out a practice session at the Lakers’ training complex, “I’m not clutch.”
Really? For a man who’s got NBA title rings for every digit on one hand, definitely not the kind of mental attitude you want down 1-0 and going into a second home playoff game.
Is it possible that the Mavericks have gotten into Kobe's head? The one way Bryant can prove that he’s a leader of the team and not just a leading scorer is to focus more in the closing minutes and share “the rock” more than he’s done lately.
What to look for in Game 2
The Lakers suffered mightily in Game 1 because of an inability in the second half to get the ball inside to Bynum, Gasol and Odom. By allowing Dallas to run and shoot and then turning the ball over in the latter part of the game, the Lakers let Dallas direct both the tempo and the final result.
In Game 2, on the offensive side, the Lakers need to hit the low post, be more patient with shots and slow the game down. That means Kobe has to be a more effective playmaker and that Los Angeles can’t rely on the outside shot alone at crunch time. Kobe can’t do it all by himself. The Lakers have to directly take on Dallas’ “bigs” and try and get them into foul trouble as early as possible.
In this way, L.A. softens up the paint and gives itself more opportunities to win – and LA should win this game.
Otherwise, the Lakers may just have to settle for spending the remainder of the playoffs watching on a big screen TV – accompanied by a big bowl of popcorn.