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Lakers 92, Mavericks 98: It's Almost Over

The magic, it seems, has run out. The Lakers have escaped from some sticky spots en route to winning NBA titles the past couple years, but it's hard to see how they're getting out of this one. Tonight in Dallas their hopes for a three-peat and a celebratory end to Phil Jackson's incomparable coaching career were all but snuffed out. The Mavericks once again combined thoughtful play, relentless execution and a breathtaking performance by Dirk Nowitzki to drop the Lakers to the mat. There might be no getting up this time. The champs wanted this one badly. They needed this one, and they competed with a focus and passion that we haven't seen much of this postseason. It still wasn't enough.

The Lakers led by six with under five minutes to play. Game Three to that point had gone far from perfectly, but the Lakers had done enough things right to claw their way back into the series. Andrew Bynum was blasting away inside. Kobe Bryant was steady at the wheel of the offense. Lamar Odom was lacerating the Mavs with slashing drives to the rim. Even the awful Laker bench was chipping in with occasionally timely baskets. Unfortunately, this team has spent all season pooping away games in crunch time, so when the Mavs outscored the Lakers 17 to 5 over the game's final 10 possessions to win going away, 98 to 92, it was less a surprise than a depressing confirmation of the flaws that have transformed the soon-to-be-ex champs into second round also-rans.

In those last few minutes, it all came apart. The Lakers stopped running their offense and either forgot or chose not to throw the ball into Bynum. Pau Gasol, who's deep into a crisis of confidence and identity, burned a critical possession with an ugly jumper. Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher each committed back-breaking turnovers. At the other end, the Mavs just continued executing their impeccable offensive gameplan, swinging the ball briskly from strong side to weak, sending the Lakers into a confused defensive scramble that inevitably led to an open jumper or a trip to the free-throw line. Peja Stojakovic and Jason Terry buried open threes, something no Laker has been able to do this series. And on those rare occasions when nobody else was open, the solution was simple: give the ball to Dirk and let him knock down one impossible-seeming shot after the next.

In the first two games of this series, the central problem was a Laker attack that couldn't find the hoop. Tonight the offense was actually quite decent, at least until it imploded at the end. There was a strong commitment, not least on Kobe's part, to work the ball into the paint. Guys were fighting on the offensive glass. Shannon Brown and Steve Blake became functioning contributors again. Through three quarters, the Lakers had even made 3 of 7 from long-distance - nothing spectacular, but a damn sight better than the 2 for 20 they'd shot in Game Two. Despite the late-game collapse, the Lakers still scored 1.10 points per possession on the night, a significant improvement on the 0.99 they averaged over the first two games.

What did them in most critically was terrible defense in the first and fourth periods. Check out the two teams' points per possession, quarter by quarter:        



















In the middle periods the Lake Show had the Mavs locked down. The rotations were good, guys were forcing turnovers, and there weren't too many shooters left unmarked. But the first and fourth quarters were just so, so ugly. I can't even count the number of times Dirk or Peja or Terry were allowed to fire away unchallenged from behind the arc. The Mavs knew that if they just kept moving the ball, at some point the Lakers would get caught out of position. They look like they've got this Laker defense straight-up solved.

Dirk finished with 32 points on only 20 shots (including free-throw possessions). On the whole I thought the defense of Gasol and Odom on him wasn't that bad. Dirk's simply playing at an all-universe level right now, and I'm not sure anyone would be able to slow him down. Terry, with 23 points, had a fantastic game. Peja had 15 and is finally getting his revenge on the Lakers almost a decade after airballing a three-point attempt at the end of Game Seven in the 2002 Western Conference Finals.

The Lakers didn't really miss Ron Artest in this one. Lamar Odom started in his place, and the team had little difficulty adjusting to the unusual lineup. The guy Ron would've spent most of the night guarding, Shawn Marion, had an awful game. It's hard to look at what went wrong and think that Artest would've caused things to unfold differently.

The guy everyone will now come down on without mercy is Gasol. Someday we'll find out what's gone wrong with this guy. It might be fatigue. It might be something in his personal life. Whatever it is, he's not himself. His play is indecisive and ineffectual, and his 12-and-8 performance tonight is far from what the Lakers needed from him.

To be fair, he did some valuable things. His offensive boards led to seven second-chance points, and he drew a big charge on Dirk with 4:22 to play, which unfortunately turned out to be the Lakers' last defensive stop of the night. Still, Pau's been consistently subpar in these playoffs. It's not like everyone else has been at the top of their games - aside from Kobe and Drew, nobody's been earning their paychecks - but Pau's the $19 million man who's counted on to go toe-to-toe with Nowitzki. The only way Dirk could be owning him any harder is if he broke into Pau's car, stole the Creedence tapes and used the backseat as a toilet.

Game Four is Sunday afternoon. Whether you think there's still hope, or you think this is a dead team walking, I'm not going to try talking you out of your position. You know what it means to be down 3-0. You know what this team's capable of and what it's not. I'll be watching on Sunday not with any real expectation of a turnaround, but because I love basketball and I love the Lakers, and pretty soon both could be gone from our lives.











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