For their next death-defying stunt, the Lakers will attempt to pull off what 98 teams before them couldn't: win a playoff series after falling behind three games to zilch. What puts the near-impossibility of the task in perspective for me isn't the oh-for-98 stat, but one less often cited: that of the 98 teams in this position, only three have even forced a Game Seven. If you're curious, the last team to do so was Portland in 2003, in a first-round series against the Mavericks. The 1994 Nuggets did it in a second-round series against Utah, and the Knicks did it in the NBA Finals against the Rochester Royals in 1951. (Theo Ratliff remembers watching the '51 Finals back when he was a teenager. His family's RCA set had an eight-inch B/W screen and weighed 700 pounds.)
The point being, not only has no team ever climbed all the way out the Sarlacc pit. Very, very few have even come close. Even if you conceived of each game as a 50/50 coin flip, there's only a 1 in 8 chance of reaching a Game Seven and a 1 in 16 chance of pulling the series upset. And that 50/50 assumption is way too generous to the team down oh-three. You generally don't fall behind that badly in a series unless in some meaningful way you're the inferior squad.
Are the Lakers inferior to the Mavs? At this point the answer's got to be yes. Perhaps in the abstract you'd prefer the Lakers' roster, but if you knew that Pau Gasol was playing some of the worst ball of his career and Dirk Nowitzki some of the best? Of course you'd give the edge to the Mavs. They have more guys playing well, they're executing with more confidence and intelligence, they're handling endgame pressure situations with more poise and professionalism, and frankly they've been the better-coached team in this series.
Though Dirk has understandably received the bulk of the praise for the Mavs' excellent performance, Rick Carlisle deserves his own helping of love. The offensive gameplan he's implemented, heavy on the high pick-and-roll and fast ball reversals to the weakside, is the perfect way to unlock the Lakers' defense and its strategy of overloading one side of the court and funneling everything to the bigs. Carlisle's approach wouldn't be working nearly as well if his guys weren't hitting open jumper, but the scheme is a big reason those jumpers are open in the first place. On defense, too, he's made the right adjustments. The Mavs have responded to the Lakers' inability to hit three-point shots by doubling Bynum and generally sagging everyone into the paint. It sounds straightforward, but believe me, plenty of teams wouldn't get this stuff right.
As for Phil Jackson, it's brutal seeing him go out like this. What he's done for the Lakers organization over the years is impossible to overpraise. His achievements could earn him a statue outside Staples Center someday. But this series... it hasn't been his finest moment. His squad's execution in clutch moments has been a disaster. At times he's gone far too long with reserves on the court. He's been unable to break his team's habit of ignoring Bynum for long, fatal stretches. And the pick-and-roll defense doesn't look any better than it did against the Hornets. I haven't seen Phil seem this helpless since the 2004 Finals against Detroit. Now, as then, he looks like a coach who's used up every trick in his bag.
Either you still think the Lakers can conjure a miracle, or you've accepted that this is the end of the line. You can probably guess which camp I'm in. For those still clinging to hope, I won't argue you're wrong. I think at this point one's outlook has less to do with analysis of on-court considerations than with predispositions toward optimism or pessimism. We're each living this moment in our own way.
But even for those, like me, who've resigned themselves to pending fate, Game Four isn't meaningless. A sweep is something none of us should accept. A Game Five back at Staples is small consolation, but at least it gives L.A. one last chance to express its appreciation for Phil before he motorcycles into the sunset. A Game Five would forestall for two more days the long, penitential journey that awaits in the offseason.
In terms of tactical issues, there's nothing new under the sun. If the Lakers want to live to see Monday, they'd better figure out how not to leave shooters open behind the arc 20 times a game. The guards need to do a better job cutting off the dribble penetration of Jose Barea and Jason Terry. More touches for Bynum would help. (To save time, I cut and paste that sentence from a dozen other previews I wrote this season.) So would sticking pins in a Dirk Nowitzki voodoo doll. Oh, and the Lakers better have a double-digit lead heading into the final few minutes. Anything less and they'll obviously find a way to cough up the win.
Some of you will be screaming at your TVs tomorrow, either in anger or desperate hope. Me, I'm going to try emotionally disinvesting myself from the outcome. If this is really the end, we'll have months to rage and pick over what went wrong. My plan is to put all that aside for one afternoon and just enjoy a basketball game for its own simple pleasures. With a lockout on the horizon, this could be our last glimpse of the Lakers in a long-ass time. When they do come back, they'll look either a little or a lot different. It's been a magnificent run, and I'm going to enjoy what's left of it while I still have the chance.
By the way, SoCalGal will be on the threads tomorrow and C.A. will have the recap. I'll be providing coverage over at SBN Los Angeles with quarterly updates and commentary. In the meantime, have a great Saturday night, and steer clear of Derrick Caracter if you see him at IHOP.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.