With a team that has won 20 of their last 23 games, the Dallas Mavericks continue to hit the drawing board to become a better team. When a team has three losses by a total of three points and they still feel there is plenty to improve on, you are looking a team that has their eyes on the big prize. That prize is currently in possession of the Los Angeles Lakers. The Mavericks (47-18) will take on the Lakers (46-20) on Saturday night at the American Airlines Center. “It’s the defending champs coming in your building, so it’s a big deal. To try and downplay it wouldn’t be being honest,” Coach Rick Carlisle said when looking ahead. “It’s an important game.”
There is playoff positioning on the line as Dallas have a 1 1/2-game lead on the Lakers for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoff picture. The end to a challenging week which saw the Mavericks play four games in five nights has the Mavericks battling the two-time defending champion Lakers. Does all of these lead to Saturday night's showdown a statement game?
When the Lakers last came into the American Airlines Center on January 19 to face the Mavericks, Dallas surged to a 109-100 victory to end a troubling six-game losing streak. They are looking to hit the repeat button as the Lakers' eight-game win streak came to an end Thursday night in Miami against the Heat, falling for the first time since the All-Star break. The loss against the Heat was frustrating to the point where Kobe Bryant spent sixty minutes on the American Airlines Arena court going through shooting routine as Heat ball boys rebounded shot after shot.
With the win against the New York Knicks on Thursday night, the Mavs guaranteed that they’ll hang on to the West’s second seed at least for a few extra days. Dallas will have an opportunity to get a firm grasp on the No. 2 seed on Saturday night. The Mavericks and the Lakers have never crossed paths in the playoffs during the Mark Cuban era. Imagine the wordsmith interaction between Cuban and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson. If things hold up, which is asking for a lot, the Mavericks and Lakers are on a collision course in the playoffs with the winner of the seven-game series heading to the Western Conference Finals. Many believe that the Mavericks will need that home-court advantage if they do face the Lakers in the second round in order to defeat the champs. Taking a 2-0 series lead against the back-to-back champions could go a long way for the Mavericks from a psychological perspective.
The psychological perspective has come into focus over the last 48 hours due to Rick Carlisle's comments after the game against the New Orleans Hornets where he said that his team was "soft." Carlisle explained his opinion with more detail on Thursday. “I just see more and more teams that are taking physical liberties on our guys, and so much of this game to me is about disposition, both physically and mentally,” Carlisle said. “We’ve been very good this year, but I always feel like we can be better and more consistent. That’s really where it’s at.” The coach does not want to see his team to start getting into fist fights, but he wants to see them respond when times get tough. The bullet was fired and it was used to get the attention of his team and let them known that they need to continue setting the bar higher and higher if they want to reach their goal.
The Mavericks will need everyone when it comes to trying to slow down Kobe Bryant. Shawn Marion has started the last two games for the Mavericks and it is likely he will get his third straight start against the Lakers. "I'm just trying to do what I can to help this team the best way I can," Marion said. "It's in a variety of ways. That's all I can do." If Marion's sore ribs give him issues, the Mavericks can go to Corey Brewer and DeShawn Stevenson. The options display the amount of depth the Mavs have at their disposal.
Dallas also has a wild card in the form of Rodrigue Beaubois. The French guard is coming off of his best performance as of late with his 14 points and six assists in the victory against the Knicks. The Lakers do have their issues when it comes to guarding quicker guards, so the combination of Beaubois and JJ Barea should give the Lakers fits. The bench can be another huge advantage for the Mavericks. Dallas is 39-9 when its bench outscores the opposing team’s bench. The Mavericks are 34-5 when at least two reserves score in double figures and 9-2 when at least three subs score 10-plus points. Adding it all together between the starters and the bench, the Mavs are 31-5 when five-plus players score in double figures and 13-1 when at least six players record 10-plus points in a game.
The Lakers have been known as a team that has front-court depth and length and few teams can actually match up against them in that department, the Mavericks are one of the few that can load up against the Lakers in that department. Brendan Haywood will be a major factor coming off the bench. Over the last five games, the center has averaged 7.8 points and 7.4 rebounds in 29.8 minutes of action. "It's no secret to beat the Lakers you have to have bigs and I'm one of our team's bigs," Haywood said. "I have to come out there, have to be aggressive on the glass, take the challenge in guarding (Andrew) Bynum, he's a great center in this league, and at the same time give us a presence on their drives. Depending on the situation, depending on how the minutes go, I play a big role. But, no matter what I have to go out there and have a big presence when I'm out there on the court." If the Mavericks can stand tall against the Lakers' big men, that will be another advantage for Dallas.
"The (Lakers') big guys are enormous," Carlisle said. "You've got to play them even on the boards or beat them on the boards to beat them. That's going to be our challenge." The challenges will only get tougher over the last 17 games. Weeks like the Mavericks are finishing up are only the tip of the iceberg. “This week has been full of tough challenges, and it doesn’t get any easier now. The Lakers just came off a loss in Miami, so you know they’re gonna be ready to play," Nowitzki said. "Yeah, it should be another fun test."
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