If the playoffs were to start today, and we're not far off from the moment when they do, the Los Angeles Lakers would be facing a familiar opponent in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs: Tonight's opponent, the Dallas Mavericks. I'd say its the same team that knocked the Lakers out of the playoffs in ignominious fashion last season, sweeping the defending champions away with ease in just the 2nd round, but that's not true, because this Dallas team is a far cry from the one that ended up riding momentum all the way to an NBA title last season. They let Tyson Chandler walk, let J.J. Barea walk, and took advantage as the Lakers let Lamar Odom walk (in a move that has hurt both teams, but ironically has hurt Dallas more).
The Lakers have taken it to the Mavs all season long. They are 3-0 against Dallas on the season, including two of their most impressive wins on the season, in Dallas. Winning today's game would be just one more message that the Lakers would love to get some sweet revenge on Dallas the only place it matters, in the playoffs. And a Laker victory would make a Mavs-Lakers first round series considerably more likely. The Laker victory would keep them a game up on the Clippers, effectively two because the Lakers own the tiebreaker, and it would drop the Mavs a full three games in the loss column behind the Grizzlies for the 5th seed. The other direction, it would tie Dallas with Denver and Houston in the loss column, but they would still be a game up with a fairly easy schedule in their last five games. Since Dallas owns the tiebreaker against both teams, I would put a Laker win today at 50:50 odds for ensuring the Lakers get a chance to end Dallas' repeat hopes at the earliest possible moment come the 2nd season.
All the Lakers have to do to achieve that victory is keep the good times rolling from the past few games. With Kobe Bryant out (and after a two game spell figuring things out), the Lakers have improved the cohesiveness of their team ten fold. All the parts are operating properly in a well oiled machine. Of course, we can only say this because all the parts are operating properly, which is a state of affairs that hasn't been true much of the season. Usually, the Lakers have ridden the coattails of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and/or Pau Gasol (with Ramon Sessions added to the mix mid-season), rarely with any meaningful contribution from the rest of the roster. But Kobe's absence has inspired a true renaissance in Metta World Peace, who has played better over the last four games than I can ever remember him playing in a Laker uniform. He's draining shots (both good ones and bad ones), playing with a manic defensive energy even higher than his norm, and generally bullying his way to being an extremely effective player on both sides of the court.
Meanwhile, in his last two contests, Bynum has shown a different half of his overall dominant package. On Wednesday, he destroyed the Spurs offense by himself, picking up boards and blocking/affecting shots in equal measure. On Friday, he did it offensively, going for 30 points even in the face of intense and quick double teaming throughout. The kid has so many different ways he can change a game, it's a shame he seems to only pick one per contest. Regardless, he's been excellent lately (and at any point this season in which he wasn't too busy being an idiot). And the rest of the team seems to be finding their form at just the right time. Steve Blake has been not-awful the past couple games, Matt Barnes changes 1 out of every 5 games with his performance (and can still change the rest with his energy) and Pau Gasol remains one hell of a player that we can all seem to forget.
Kobe looks set to miss today's contest once again, but if the Lakers can maintain decent play from the small forward spot, they should still have enough to deal with the Mavs. Dallas is a good team, and after last year, should never be overlooked. They are a Dirk Nowitzki explosion away from winning any contest. But if the Lakers want revenge for the way that Dallas sent them packing last season, their opportunity can come only in the playoffs. A win tonight, though meaningless in the sense that the season sweep of regular season games will not carry a significant message, will give the Lakers an excellent change of playing the role of the Grim Reaper to the Mavericks repeat title hopes, such as they are.
Sweet revenge starts right now,.