The Lakers-Mavericks rivalry circa 2012 is fraught with blogworthy topics. The Mavs murdered the Three-peat Dream. They embarrassed the Lakers in one of the organization's worst-ever playoff losses. They grabbed from the Lakers the prestige status of NBA champions. All this set in motion a realignment of front-office mindset in Los Angeles that purged Brian Shaw and tossed the keys to Mike Brown. To add pain to other pain, the Mavs snaked Lamar Odom from under our noses in that trade that was so, so weird. Not in a great historical sense but looking just at the present, it kinda feels like the Mavs are just a little bit smarter and more nimble than the purple and gold.
Tonight the Lakers will see the Mavericks on the court for the first time since getting pounded in Game Four. I imagine someone, somewhere thinks of this as an "opportunity for payback" or some such, but honey please. That second-round series was gross beyond anything. The Mavs made us watch as the two-time champs came unglued slowly and then all at once. One cannot redeem so great an asskicking with a win in the regular-season. Only in time, with a sustained return to dominance. Tonight's just one among 66, a chance to land a quick punch with a promise of more later.
This past offseason the Mavs shed a steamer trunk full of bros: Tyson Chandler (Knicks), Jose Barea (Timberwolves), DeShawn Stevenson (don't care), Caron Butler (Clippers), Peja Stojakovic (retirement) and Corey Brewer (Nuggets but also don't care). That seems like a vital chunk to carve out of a champion, yes? It did to me. What we have now are Delonte West starting at the two and soaking up backcourt minutes, Vince Carter doing the same but off the bench and of course, the lost wanderer, Lamar Odom. Okay... as usual, the Mavs have whipped together some clever, high-upside gambles. But they need at least one to pay off and become a Chandler-Barea caliber difference-maker. The skeptics felt smug five days into the season, by which point the Mavs had been hammered three times already and Odom looked like a man in deep personal crisis. Nobody honestly wrote the Mavs off, but schadenfreude at your expense is part of a champion's life. As Laker fans know well.
The Mavs have pulled themselves together nicely over the past couple weeks. After a shameful pounding in Minnesota, they slapped the Thunder with their first loss of the season and have won seven of their last eight. Included in that stretch is a W in Boston. The Mavs are just impossible to kill. Their star is a star and their role players are pros. You know they're going to play that thinking-man's tricky game, with those Dirk Nowitzki stepbacks and Jason Terry fast-break spot-ups. This is still a team that tests your brain. They'll make you show up to work and play supremely sharp or lose.
The Mavs' turnaround has been counterintuitive in shape. Aside from a few moments against the Bucks and the Pistons, the usually precise offense has been just ordinary. The defense, though, is outstanding. Dallas enters tonight's game fourth overall in defensive efficiency (i.e., points allowed per possession) and first overall in both turnovers forced and defensive rebounding. How they've managed this despite the loss of defensive linchpin Chandler is beyond me, but it's classic Dallas. Every time you try to sweep them into the dustbin they evolve new ways to beat you.
Seeing Odom play against the Lakers will be weird and uncomfortable. I can't stay mad at Lamar. He was a great Laker for a long stretch and should have a place in all of our hearts. He did a stupid thing in demanding a trade but surely he knows it. He's been one of the league's worst regulars this year and has enough problems without any of us wishing him ill. I hope no one at Staples boos him tonight. Let us be gracious hosts.
BUT NOT TOO GRACIOUS, AM I RIGHT? The Lakers need to prove they can beat someone in the upper echelon. With a road trip to Miami and Orlando coming up they need a firebreak on their one-game losing streak. A win tonight would clear out the nasty stench left from the Clippers defeat. A loss could scratch at the team's psyche and set up an embarrassing destruction by the Heat.
Kobe Bryant has scored 40 more points in four straight games. That he's done so efficiently elevates the achievement to breathtaking. Usually it's Jason Kidd who guards Kobe on the Mavs. West is another OK option. Carter is not. The streak could and probably will end tonight, which is obviously fine. Kobe has made his point about not conceding to age.
Even when stringing together victories the Lakers' offense has been frequently sloppy. Keeping turnovers to a reasonable minimum is necessary, not only to max out scoring possessions but to limit Kidd's ability to fast break and find shooters. Also keep an eye on the Lakers' second chances. On the year they've been a top offensive-rebounding team but have dropped off over the last three games. The Lakers will never, ever win a volume jumpshooting contest with the Mavs, so they have to generate extra looks at the hoop.
It will be interesting to see whether the Lakers are better at marking Mavs shooters than they were last spring. It does seem like they've been better in that respect under Mike Brown. The Mavs for their part haven't been on their shooting form. Last year they were 11th in the league in three-point accuracy but are just 20th now. Lamar (7 for 37 from behind the arc) is tragically responsible for a big piece of the drop. Dirk too (5 for 25) has been brutal.
My guess is that both teams will wheeze and stutter on offense tonight. I admit, I'm still a long way from being sold on this Lakers team. I need to see more than wins over Utah and Cleveland. Even if they're diminished from last year, the Mavs remain a prestigious opponent, and revenge has to start somewhere.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.