With the first round now completed; in a manner that could be argued to either be significantly more difficult than predicted or just par for the course; the Lakers move on to the Western Conference Semi-Finals versus the Dallas Mavericks, a team with whom the Lakers have had some scrappy encounters in the past. The Lakers are one seed ahead of the Mavericks, and thus have Home Court for four out of the seven games in the series despite having an equal record. This series has been looked forward to by many; due to reasons such as Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki having never met in the postseason despite spending much of their careers in it, the teams' equal records, or the scrappy play of their last match-up. It's been particularly looked forward to by Laker fans as the Mavericks are arguably the Lakers' preferred matchup in the second round, with Oklahoma City being seen as the Lakers' biggest threat in the West whilst Memphis served to pose significant match-up issues in their frontline talent and excellent wing defense.
As part of Silver Screen and Roll tradition, here is the first of our series previews proper, our positional preview, following on from Dex's series intro yesterday and preceding tomorrow's statistical preview. Before I get down to breaking it down position-by position; here's an injury list for both teams:
Kobe Bryant - sprained left ankle (will play Game One)
Pau Gasol - upper respiratory illness (will play Game One)
Also of note are players recovering from injury; namely Matt Barnes (knee surgery); with Andrew Bynum (bone bruise in knee) and Ron Artest (hyperextended knee) seemingly fully recovered from their prior injuries.
Caron Butler - ruptured patellar tendon (out for series)
Also of note is Rodrigue Beaubois, who was activated for the Mavericks' last game following recovery from a sprained foot, but did not play. He has not played at all in the Playoffs and will likely be rusty.
CENTER: Andrew Bynum vs. Tyson Chandler
At Center, the Mavericks start Tyson Chandler, a decent shot-blocker and excellent rebounder (12.1 boards per 36 minutes). Chandler possesses a limited but efficient offensive game, scoring a mediocre 13.1 points per 36 minutes, but doing it on an insane 69.7% TS. Both this limited usage and high efficiency can be explained by taking a look at his method of scoring - whilst he only posts up 8% of the time, and produces a mediocre 0.96PPP on 41% shooting in doing so; the vast majority of his offense comes from cuts, offensive rebounds and being the roll man on pick-and-rolls. He averages in insane 1.33 points per possession in these three categories, which make up 62.1% of his possessions (for reference, the Lakers as a team averaged around 1.09 points per possession on the season). His spot-up attempts are almost nonexistent, so the best way for the Lakers to defend him would simply be to not lose sight of him and keep him out of the paint - a task easier said than done. This is compounded by Bynum being the Lakers' designated shot-blocker and rim-protector, meaning there will often be occasions in which Bynum leaves Chandler to help on penetration. As such, it is imperative the other Laker bigs watch where Chandler is in those scenarios (unless Dirk is their man, in which case they should have help responsibilities limited).
In terms of defense, Chandler is respected as a shot-blocker; though his one-on-one defense is not as lauded. Physically, he has the length to challenge Bynum; though Bynum can still simply overpower him as Chandler weighs approximately 240lbs, giving Bynum nearly a 50-pound advantage. The Lakers should get the ball into Bynum on the block often, forcing Chandler to play one-on-one defense, opening the paint up for cuts from other players; and potentially even getting Chandler into foul trouble.
POWER FORWARD: Pau Gasol vs. Dirk Nowitzki
Arguably the most anticipated match-up in the series; with the Mavericks playing Dirk Nowitzki, a player who has reminded everyone of his contention for best power forward in the game today; versus Pau Gasol, a player who has been placed in that category before on certain occasions, but hasn't been playing the part this season. Both are undeniably two of the both skilled big men in the game today, they comprise of arguably the two best European players in the League, and they have both had multiple All-Star berths. In terms of accolades, Dirk leads the way, with an MVP, multiple All-NBA selections, and a greater number of All-Star selections than Pau. I'd argue that that mirrors their skill difference - Pau is a good player, but Dirk is on another level with his range, mobility, consistency and ability to put his team on his back.
Nonetheless, when one is picking a player to match up with Dirk Nowitzki, one could certainly do a lot worse than Pau Gasol. Pau has enough mobility and comfort outside of the paint to chase Dirk on the perimeter, as well as being able to match up with him in the post. In terms of offense, Dirk scores the majority of his points in the post, according to Synergy Sports (a fact that may surprise some - even moreso considering Dirk scores 1.13 PPP in the post, significantly greater than Pau's ugly 0.91), followed by spot-up shooting, with isolation plays taking a distant third.
Indeed, news that may surprise many is that Dirk is statistically better in the post on both offense and defense - with a 0.71 to 0.79 advantage in points given up per possession when defending post-ups. However, one must take these numbers in context considering that a. Pau posts up a lot more than Dirk (posts up on offense about 12% more, defends post-ups about 14% more; both as a percentage of their overall plays) and b. Pau often plays against Centers, in contrast to Dirk who may often be defended by a smaller man in attempt to take away his perimeter game. In light of all this, I'll call it even in the post.
In terms of Dirk's other forms of offense, Pau has no excuse to not contest Dirk's spot-up shooting effectively, considering he should have minimal help defense responsibilities and Bynum is assigned to defend the paint. Isolation plays are where Dirk may have the advantage, as Dirk's advanced ball-handling skills, mobility, and ability to shoot over a contest are hard to guard for anyone. The best way to defend this is quite literally to not give him the opportunity - Pau should focus on ball-denial instead of just letting Dirk have the ball.
Although Pau does not have a significant statistical advantage in the post, he's still slightly bigger than Dirk, who isn't regarded as a particularly great defender. As such, Pau should attack Dirk in the post, hoping to tire him out or even get him into foul trouble. It goes without saying that Pau needs to be more aggressive this series than the last.
OFFENSE PERIMETER CROSS-MATCH 1: Kobe Bryant vs. Shawn Marion
The Mavericks are likely to throw multiple looks at Kobe, including DeShawn Stevenson and Jason Kidd; but considering Kidd's age and Stevenson's lack of minutes its rather likely Marion sees the majority of time on Kobe. Marion has the size advantage, and is known as a decent defender. He's certainly a better defender than any the Hornets had available, but compared to the likes of Thabo Sefolosha, Arron Afflalo and Tony Allen, he's not exceptional. He is bigger than any of the aforementioned, however, which probably simply means that Kobe will isolate in the mid-range more in favour of posting up. Ultimately, this is Kobe we're talking about; and with very limited exceptions, he will always find a way to effectively attack a defender - whether his shot falls or not is another question.
OFFENSE PERIMETER CROSS-MATCH 2: Ron Artest vs. Jason Kidd
Precedent points to the Mavericks assigning Jason Kidd to defend Ron Artest. Whilst Jason Kidd is significantly disadvantaged in terms of size in this matchup, leading to Phil placing Ron in the post to exploit this, Mark Cuban has been quite vocal in saying that his team aims to force Ron into the center of the Triangle, and put him into a decision-making role. Cuban seems to think that doing so will be too much for Ron to handle and lead to inefficiency in the offense. However, with Ron's recent jump in play in the postseason, it's unlikely that will be an issue. Nonetheless, even though Jason Kidd is undersized, he was a respected defender is his younger days and possesses 'old man strength'; so Ron may not dominate this match-up as much as we'd like.
OFFENSE PERIMETER CROSS-MATCH 3: Derek Fisher vs. Jason Terry
Although Jason Terry technically comes off the bench, he plays starter's minutes whilst with Roddy Beaubois currently out of the rotation, the 'starter' DeShawn Stevenson plays only 12 minutes per game, thus he'll be treated as a starter for the purposes of this preview. With Kidd assigned to Ron and Marion assigned to Kobe, that leaves Jason Terry to defend Derek Fisher. Terry is slightly taller than Fisher, but Fisher possesses a size and strength advantage - something he has used so far in the Playoffs to bully his way to the rim on occasion. This is likely a function of Fisher's usual post-season burst; which shows itself in advanced statistics, giving him an insane 128 Offensive Rating for the Playoffs, according to basketball-reference.com. In addition to bullying Terry, as Terry is a rather undisciplined player, it's likely Fisher will find opportunities for spot-up shooting; a good thing considering he has shot 56% from deep these Playoffs.
DEFENSE PERIMETER CROSS-MATCH 4: Kobe Bryant vs. Shawn Marion
As Artest will likely be conscripted to chase Jason Terry around and prevent him from getting hot, Kobe will probably be defending Shawn Marion for much of the game. Marion is a prototypical athletic hustle player, in that the majority of his points come off of cuts, offensive rebounds and transition The cure for the first two is simply keeping a body on him and paying attention to him - something that Kobe, who had trouble focusing on his man in the Regular Season, has done reasonably well in the Playoffs. As for transition, the answer is simply to not allow the Mavericks out in transition by limiting long rebounds and turnovers on the other end. Marion also posts up a fair amount, with it comprising of nearly one-fifth of his offensive possessions, but he's not exceptional from there, at 0.98 points per possession; a number likely further reduced due to Kobe actually being a post player, as opposed to most wings. One thing Marion can't do is spot-up - he shoots a terrible 35% on spot-up jumpers, probably a good thing considering Kobe is defending him.
DEFENSE PERIMETER CROSS-MATCH 5: Ron Artest vs. Jason Terry
As, with Roddy Beaubois out, Jason Terry is the only wing player on the Mavs who can create offense for himself, it'll likely fall to Ron to guard him. Terry is best spotting up or in transition; Ron can neutralise the former through bumping Terry off his spots and denying him the ball, whilst the latter can only be limited by smart offense on the Lakers' part. Terry is also effective coming off of off-ball screens, an area Ron may have some trouble with due to his size, and the only way to neutralise that is through help defense. Terry also runs the pick and roll a bit, but he's not very effective on it, likely because everybody and their mom knows he's looking to shoot. Hopefully Ron can play physical and try to get Terry off of his game, but that could backfire and motivate Terry to go on a shooting rampage (only a backfire if he hits the shots, otherwise it's great).
DEFENSE PERIMETER CROSS-MATCH 6: Derek Fisher vs. Jason Kidd
Jason Kidd is, quite simply, probably the easiest match-up Fisher will face in these playoffs. He lacks the quickness and scoring ability of guys like Chris Paul, Russel Westbrook, Derrick Rose and even Mike Conley. Where he possesses an advantage over them all, arguably even Paul, however, is basketball IQ and raw court vision. Whilst he cannot use superior quickness and scoring ability to collapse the defense on him before passing like the rest can; he is still amongst the League leaders in assists per game, and indeed amongst the greatest of all time in career assists per game and total assists. Arguably, he's the smartest pure passer in the game. But he still can't score, he's not quick and doesn't have an exceptional jump shot, likely to Fisher's relief. Fisher's combination of basketball-IQ and veteran savvy are probably the best match for Kidd's court vision of pretty much any point guard in the League. Coincidentally, Kidd is also amongst the All-Time leaders in three point field goals made, amazing for a dude who didn't previously have a J. His percentage isn't amazing, but he's consistent and has a knack for hitting big shots. However, it's a slow set shot, not one that lends itself well to being contested, and provided Fisher keeps on his man, Kidd's not going to hit too many of those.
BENCH: Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, Shannon Brown and Steve Blake vs. Brendan Haywood, Peja Stojakovic, DeShawn Stevenson, JJ Barea and Roddy Beaubois
In terms of reserves, the Lakers trot out Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom, accompanied by the talented-yet-inconsistent (funny, Lamar used to fit perfectly into that club) "Killah Bee's"; whilst the Mavericks counter with 7-footer Brendan Haywood, floor-spreader Peja Stojakovic, fiesty DeShawn Stevenson; and the crafty guard tandem JJ Barea and Robby Beaubois. Of course, there aren't enough minutes for all of the Mav's bench players to play consistently, and I suspect this will come at the cost of one of their guards. Whilst Stevenson was only starting due to Beaubois' injury, I suspect he'll still get minutes over Beaubois due to the Lakers' size on the perimeter, which makes it highly unwise to put out two 6-foot guards simultaneously. Meanwhile, I doubt Beaubois steals too many minutes from Barea, who's simply been better than him. I suspect that Beaubois will still get minutes, due to his ability to serve as a spark plug, but if he doesn't make good use of them he'll soon be back on the bench; particularly considering Stevenson spreads the floor better than he does.
In terms of which bench has the advantage, I have to go with the Lakers. Both teams feature a single rotation big man off the pine; and whilst Haywood has size and is a respectable shot-blocker and rebounder, he can't match Odom's versatility and sheer talent. In terms of the perimeter, despite the mercurial nature of the Lakers' "Killah Bee's", I'd argue the Lakers' bench unit is better than that of the Mavs, with the condition of Steve Blake keeping the offense running smoothly (as he has done for most of the Playoffs). Stojakovic and Stevenson spread the floor well; but with Beaubois coming back from injury and Barea undergoing a massive slump in the postseason, the Mavs' bench features no creators (provided of course neither Barea or Beaubois find their form, far from a sure thing). Of course, this positional-based preview isn't taking account of the fact that the Mavs will likely run Terry often with the bench, whilst the Lakers often run Pau.
What'll be interesting to watch is how physical it gets, with the prior history between these two teams. The Mavs will likely want some revenge for last time, but last time proved their play doesn't respond well to hostility. Meanwhile, I doubt Barnes will willingly back down any time soon, but he has been warned by Jackson he needs to tone it down in the postseason, because the Lakers can't afford him suspended. Whilst I don't see any way in which Pau gets involved in the hostility, and I doubt Kobe will do anything risking even an ejection, and Ron is too image-conscious to brawl; there's also the possibility of Bynum or Lamar getting involved in aid of the bench; whilst on the Mavericks' side Terry will be doing plenty of jawing.
In conclusion, this will be an interesting series for sure. Whilst the Mavericks hold a moderate advantage at Power Forward (perhaps expanding or contracting, depending on if Dirk goes beast--mode or Pau starts playing like an All-NBA-caliber player again); the Lakers hold a solid advantage at Center and a large advantage at two-guard. The Mavs hold a slight advantage at Point Guard, whilst Small Forward is arguably even, perhaps slightly in the Lakers' favour if Ron keeps up his improved play. As present, the bench is slightly in the Lakers' favour, though both benches are so mercurial this could easily flip to either extreme for any given game, and perhaps even do a 180 for the next game. The Lakers should win this series behind strong performances from Bynum and Kobe, though either Dirk and/or Jason Terry and the bench have the potential to turn the scales in Dallas' favour.