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Lakers 94, Mavericks 96: How To Make Charles Barkley Look Smart

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The Lakers almost got away with it. They very nearly escaped Game One with a victory despite no-shows from a few of their key guys and sloppy execution from the rest. Unfortunately, the Dallas Mavericks are not the New Orleans Hornets. They play with a skilled precision befitting their German star, and they're plenty good enough to punish the Lakers when the latter succumb to their worst habits.

The Mavs steadied themselves and kept their wits about them tonight even though they trailed by 16 in the third quarter. Down the stretch they made play after play at the offensive end while the champs slowly went to pieces. When Kobe Bryant's potential game-winner clanged off the rim with seconds to play, a nauseating reality settled over Laker fans: the purp and yellow have yet again coughed up home-court advantage just one game into a series. They have 48 hours to get it together for Game Two, which is uncomfortably close to being a must-win.

In the three regular-season meetings between these teams, the Lakers had no trouble putting up points on Dallas. They scored between 1.12 and 1.20 points per possession in each of the contests, a reflection of what we regarded coming into this second-round series as decisive mismatches in the champs' favor. But there's nothing we Laker fans enjoy more than claiming that the regular season doesn't matter, and in the case of tonight's game that definitely proved to be the case. The Lakers struggled to find and stick with a coherent offensive approach. Some great outside shooting from Kobe kept the attack moving for a while, but eventually their inability or refusal to commit to sound, team-based ball caused the offense to spit parts and sputter to a halt.

Kobe led the game with 36 points and was decently efficient: including free-throw possessions, he shot the ball 31 times. But there weren't enough passes into the paint. There was no creativity brought to the challenge of finding high-percentage looks at the rim. After a productive start, Pau Gasol became a bystander to the Kobe Show. Nobody bothered to pass the ball early on to Andrew Bynum, and he gradually let his frustration get to him. Pau and Drew combined for 23 points on 22 shots, which isn't going to get it done.

Drew's disappearance was especially unfortunate. In 29 minutes on the court he collected as many offensive rebounds as your mom and I did. Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood both put in fine work defending the post and deserve credit for disrupting Bynum's looks. But there's no excuse for Drew to go completely MIA on the offensive glass.

If anything, the small-forward position was an even more toxic disaster. Ron Artest and Matt Barnes together shot 3 for 16. Steve Blake, moreover, did nothing of note with his 17 minutes of PT. The individual stats for a lot of these bros are terrible, but it all just hints at the real problem, which was an overreliance on the perimeter game. As a team the Lakers allowed themselves to play impatiently. Too many possessions ended with an ill-considered heave from behind the arc without the ball even finding its way to the low blocks.

The Mavs took a while to find their own rhythm. Dirk Nowitzki, who finished with 28 points, was strong throughout, but it wasn't until the third quarter, when the Dallas bench starting knocking down shots, that their attack gained pace. Corey Brewer and Jose Juan Barea helped catalyze the Dallas comeback with critical threes. Peja Stojakovic hit some big shots in the fourth. Everybody who came off the bench for Dallas found a way to contribute. Except for DeShawn Stevenson, there was no Maverick deadweight in this game.

The Mavs shot brilliantly in the second half: 57 percent on twos and 56 percent on threes. They trailed by five with a few minutes left but executed the hell out of their offense to close out the game, scoring on five of their last six trips. If you've watched the Lakers at all this year, I don't need to tell you they looked garbagio in these final moments. In close games this team is just really awful down the stretch, at both ends of the court.

The last few possessions of the game were an excruciating, slow-motion catastrophe. Let's review:

  • With 20 seconds remaining and the Lakers up one, the Kobe iso routine went into effect. He drove the ball on Jason Kidd but instead of shooting, which would've been the right call, he tried a kick-out to Derek Fisher. Jason Terry hauled in the INT and was promptly fouled by Fish.
  • As Dallas plotted its inbounds play, Phil Jackson removed Lamar Odom from the game. Though Lamar had been the Lakers' most effective defender on Dirk, Phil assigned Pau to check the big German. Pau tried to deny Dirk on the inbounds pass but was whistled for a foul. Two made free throws later, the Mavs led by one.
  • After Kidd took a foul with eight seconds remaining - the Mavs had one to give - the ball was inbounded to Gasol. The plan was for him to hand it off to Kobe as the latter came around on a curl, but Kobe fell, the ball popped loose and the Mavs recovered it. Kidd was fouled and made one of two freebies to put the Mavs up a deuce.
  • On the Lakers' last trip, Kobe had a clean look at the hoop from three land but missed. Game ovah.

It's very possible that a foul was committed on the Kobe-Gasol turnover debacle. Kidd made some contact with both Kobe and Pau, though admittedly not much in either case. Kobe fell because he lost his balance trying to cut. Pau was jostled but still should've held onto the ball. I can't blame the refs for swallowing the whistle on this one. It was crap execution, and the Lakers didn't deserve the bail-out.

The champs didn't lose this because of the refs. They lost because they didn't play intelligently, because they strayed from the offensive precepts that have powered them to so many victories this year, because Dallas had more role players step up and because Bynum got taken out of the game. That's partly his fault, partly the fault of teammates who wouldn't pass to him and partly strong work from the Maverick bigs.

In his preview piece this morning, Actuarially Sound observed how during the regular season the Lakers had problems with Dallas lineups that included Dirk, Terry and Shawn Marion on the floor together. As he pointed out to me after the game, down the stretch Rick Carlisle went with those three guys plus Chandler and Kidd. This crunch-time lineup outscored the Lakers' 11 to 4. Well played, Mr. Carlisle.

Game Two is Wednesday night. I won't call it a must-win, exactly, but obviously heading to Dallas down two-nil is not an idea that any of us should savor.











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