The Tank Marches On: Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers Preview

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

As the Lakers enter the final stretch of the season, they now face an absolutely brutal stretch of nearly all playoff teams angling for either better seeding or one of the few spots available in a brutal Western Conference. This begins against the Mavericks tonight at Staples.

The moment it became clear that it would be advantageous for the Lakers to finish with a bad record, it was expected that the end of the year would be the Lakers' season ending with a whimper rather than a bang. We, the fans, would gain a release from the drudgery of losing and finally get some compensation in the form of a high draft pick. And make no mistake: we're going to withstand an awful lot of pain before we get that freedom. Six of the Lakers' final seven games are against teams in the West for whom these games still have important playoff implications, so dispatching a plucky yet vastly inferior team is not a task that they are going to overlook.

This is why it has been particularly engaging to see the Lakers fully embrace the possible role of spoiler for these playoff teams. Nick Young has been kind enough to give us a label for this, "player haters" and if losing these games wasn't so utterly essential for the Lakers' draft position, it would be rather tempting to join in with the joie de vivre that appears to be suffusing the team despite their circumstances. As we saw against Phoenix last week, the Lakers will compete and take advantage of a team not ready for the effort they're going to bring every night, so it will be fascinating to see how this night's opponent in the Mavericks, who have just come off a close victory against the Clippers last night, will perform.

The Mavs are driven primarily by an excellent offense that ranks fourth in the league in efficiency, an unsurprising development considering their personnel. Dirk Nowitzki continues to be highly efficient despite his age and combined with Jose Calderon at the point, the Mavs don't turn the ball over a whole lot and nail their shots at a solid 52.6 eFG%. Monta Ellis serves as their shot creator on the wing and has had uneven success against the Lakers this year, scoring 30 with consummate ease early in the season before being limited to 16 in these two teams' last matchup. Considering that Mike D'Antoni has, for lack of any other option, placed Kent Bazemore on most primary scoring threats, this should be the case tonight and it probably will be one of the more critical matchups in determining how this game plays out.

Where the Lakers possibly could make inroads and pull off the surprise upset is that the Mavs are a rather poor defensive team for a playoff aspirant, a perhaps unavoidable outcome for a team that starts the very players that make them so potent on offense in Calderon, Ellis, and Nowitzki. Samuel Dalembert does offer some much needed rim protection and a 35 year old Shawn Marion still does respectable work on this end, but the reality is that they're ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency and are arguably the most vulnerable of all the playoff teams the Lakers will face to close the season on this end. One might think that a back-to-back would help in this regard, but the Mavs are a stellar 5-0 against opponents on the end of a road back-to-back, the fact that they don't have to move cities to travel for their next game likely helping as well.

As of this morning, we know that Pau Gasol will be out after suffering a recurrence of his vertigo symptoms but have no word on Chris Kaman's situation, meaning that the team is very likely going with the Ryan Kelly and Jordan Hill frontcourt that started last game against the Kings if Kaman is not available. Kelly has performed well this year for a late second round rookie and we've almost gone out of way to praise one of the few bright spots on the team this year, but needless to say, he's going to have his hands full trying to check Dirk in any meaningful fashion. Hill, however, could be a significant factor because the Mavs are not an especially good outfit on the defensive boards, ranking 24th in the league in that respect, and his center counterparts in Dalembert and DeJuan Blair won't present nearly as large of a challenge as DeMarcus Cousins did last game for him.

Ultimately, how the Lakers perform will come down to the usual factors: are they hitting threes, getting out in transition, and catching the Mavs napping by surprising them with their effort. As previously mentioned, it is doubtful that the latter element comes into play because of how critical it is for the Mavs to dispatch the easier teams on their schedule en route to a playoff spot, but we said the same thing last week about Phoenix as the Lakers walked all over them in a rather shocking blowout. One should feel fairly safe about penciling in this game as a loss, but if we have learned anything from this Laker season, it has been to accept how this team likes to toy with our expectations.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.

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