Lakers-Mavericks: A Fight To Keep The Future At Bay

Do you feel better or worse about the Lakers than you did two weeks ago? Even though the New Orleans series was a smidge rockier than many of us expected, it strikes me that the prevailing mood in Lakerworld has perked up. Think about where we were the Saturday before last. On the eve of Game One against the Hornets, Andrew Bynum's knee was a source of no little worry. We knew his MRI had come back clean, but we didn't know how quickly he'd recover his apex predator form. The Lakers, moreover, had lost five of their last seven regular-season games. They faced the prospect, for the first time in the Pau Gasol era, of needing to win a road series just to get out of the Western Conference. Had they not snuck out of Sacramento with a ragged overtime victory on the last night of the season, they wouldn't even have home-court advantage in the second round, which begins Monday night.

Two weeks on, our collective blood pressure seems to have receded to a healthy level. Bynum was an awesomely destructive force against the Hornets. He's arguably established himself as a player every bit as important to the Lakers as Pau or Kobe. Speaking of Kobe, he too had a fine first round. Whatever condition his ankle was in those last two games, it'll benefit from having the weekend off. Derek Fisher and Ron Artest are rounding into June form. And those Spurs... aren't they just as cooperative as the grass is green? The day after their meek departure from the bracket, it's already hard to remember why they ever concerned us.

Once again the world appears to have arranged itself for the convenience of the Lake Show. In terms of health, rest, momentum (if you believe in that sort of thing) and their status as the highest remaining seed in the West, we don't really have much to complain about. Hoping to shatter this idyllic set of affairs are the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs are a squad I admit to have underestimated all season long. I thought their advanced age - they're easily the oldest team in the league - would set them on a downward flight path, that their knack for pulling out close wins would prove illusory and that the offseason addition of Tyson Chandler wouldn't prove terribly influential. All of these predictions turned out to be wrong.

The Mavs held the number two spot in the Western standings for most of this season but were overtaken by the Lakers after the All-Star break. Though both teams finished 57-25, the Lakers earned the tiebreaker by virtue of having won their division. I have no idea whether home court in this series will be important, but as I always say, it's better to have it than not. In recent years the Mavericks have not been a great road team in the postseason. Admittedly, they looked sharp in their first-round battle with the Portland Trail Blazers, whom they closed out on the road. But as the Phoenix Suns found out last year, the Lakers have a way of taking a team that looked great the round before and reminding them where exactly they stand in the food chain.

The Lakers and Mavs haven't faced each other in the playoffs since 1988. You've probably heard that a few times already, and if you haven't, don't worry: you're going to hear it a lot in the next couple days. It's definitely a little weird, given that these franchises make the playoffs almost every year.

This is the Mavs' 11th straight season of being a Western Conference power. Ever since Dirk Nowitzki emerged as a superstar in 2000-01, they've been a permanent fixture at the adults' table. It's a testament both to Dirk's greatness and to the Mavs' organizational talents that they've put together this sustained run of great basketball without falling into the kind of down cycle the Lakers went through in the middle of the decade.

But if the Mavs' lows haven't been nearly as low, their highs also haven't been as high. They're still grasping for the validation that comes with an NBA banner. It's not like they haven't had their shots. Their three-year peak lined up exactly with the three full seasons between the breakup of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers and the formation of the Pau-Kobe Lakers. The Mavs averaged 62 wins a year in that stretch. They should've broken through. But in 2005 they dropped a tough second-round series to the Steve Nash Suns. In 2006 they built a two-nil lead in the NBA Finals before honking four straight to the Shaq-Wade Heat. And of course, in 2007 they treated their fans to one of the all-time playoff stankbombs when they lost to Golden State in the first round, despite a 67-15 regular season.

They enter their series with the Lakers burdened by these accumulated disappointments. Granted, plenty of franchises would kill to have their problems. But there's a special bitterness that settles on a team when it consistently comes up juuust short at every turn. How many more chances they'll have to get it right is hard to say. Dirk's the same age as Kobe and no doubt has at least one or two more All-NBA seasons in him. But it's hard to imagine Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion keeping this up much longer, and the Mavs don't have a young stud like Bynum they can build a future around. Their best under-25 talent is Rodrique Beaubois.

A look at the other Western Conference semifinal casts the urgency of this matchup in stark relief. Either the Memphis Grizzlies or the Oklahoma City Thunder will play in the conference finals. These are young teams that are already threats to win the West, and they're only getting better. They're the future. The Lakers and Mavs are both fighting a rearguard action to keep the youngsters in their place a little bit longer.

The stakes are huge. For the Mavs, the curtain is starting to fall on the Nowitzki era. It's not all the way down yet, but if they're going to win a title with Dirk, they'd better get on with it. Knocking out the Lakers would invest them with a sense that history's finally turning their way. Beat the defending champs on their own court, and there's no one left in the field you can't handle.

As for the Lakers, they're playing for immortality. They can become one of the few teams to win their conference four years in a row and of course, one of the few teams in any sport to three-peat. A loss to Dallas would bring this grand vision to a crushing end and would send Phil Jackson into retirement on an unspeakably sour note. Imagine, if you can, Phil's final game being a loss to the Mavericks in the second round. Imagine him walking off the court under the smug, triumphant gaze of Mark Cuban. Needless to say, this can't be allowed to happen.

The Lakers are the heavy favorites in this series for obvious reasons. They're the better team, they have home-court advantage, and they haven't lost a playoff series since June 2008. Of course they're favorites. But warm-ups are over. If the Lakers lose focus, if they fail to prepare properly or sink into bad habits, the Mavs are good enough to take advantage. To lose to the Hornets, something catastrophic would've needed to go wrong. That's not the case with Dallas. The Lakers will have to be on their game from minute one.

Let's get this second round started.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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