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The Dallas Mavericks are headed back home with a surprising 2-0 series lead over the Los Angeles Lakers. Though the Lakers looked like the better team in game one only to collapse in the third quarter Dallas looked far superior to the Lakers in game two and at this point you can find just as many reasons why the Mavericks have earned their two game lead as you can for the Lakers giving it away. The Lakers are still the more talented team but they aren’t as good as the Mavericks when you look at the two teams as cohesive units.
The Mavericks have worked together flawlessly in this series, moving the ball and executing their sets with ease against the Lakers’ defense. You can blame the Lakers for their horrid pick and roll defense, their slow rotations and their lack of communication on defense but the fact is that it’s the Mavericks’ offense that puts the Lakers in a situation to fail. If the Lakers’ effort level was a bit higher then you could argue differently but the Lakers haven’t been fully locked in defensively at any point in this series and Dallas’ offense is simply too good to stop when you aren’t playing your best team defense.
In my mind, what this all boils down and what ultimately be the downfall of the Lakers’ dynasty is that the Lakers don’t have any role players. They have the personnel capable of filling roles but they simply haven’t performed anywhere close to the sum of their parts this post-season. The Lakers have stars and that’s what’s made them so good over the past few years. They have the game’s ultimate closer in Kobe Bryant and they have three terrifically skilled big men that gives Los Angeles a unique size advantage over the rest of the league. Beyond that the Lakers have some very nice complementary pieces on paper but only if that paper happens to neglect their starts from the regular season. In theory, Shannon Brown, Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Ron Artest and Derek Fisher should bring a perfect combination of athleticism, outside shooting, toughness, defense and energy to complement an already stout core but in reality they have rarely brought any of those qualities to the table.
When those players have delivered solid performances, the Lakers have looked unbeatable but again, that’s rarely been the case over the past few years. When those players play average or below average basketball, which is almost always, the Lakers have still be able to play championship level basketball. Even if Los Angeles got little to nothing out Brown, Blake, Barnes, Artest or Fisher, they still had enough firepower in Bryant, Bynum, Gasol and Odom to compete with the best teams in the league. But relying on those stars is a risky strategy. Los Angeles first round series against the New Orleans Hornets was a great example of this as the two-time defending champions were taken to six games by a Hornets’ team comprised of Chris Paul and a bunch of battered Cajun french fries. The Lakers didn’t get much of anything from their non-stars other than a few good games from Ron Artest while one of their stars was awful (Pau Gasol) and another struggled (Lamar Odom).
Los Angeles was able to sneak by the Hornets but against a more talented Mavericks team the Lakers seem to be on the brink of elimination. Their role players have failed to show up once again, Lamar Odom has continued to struggle and Pau Gasol no longer resembles an NBA player. Now, the Lakers have overcome no-shows from both their bench and Lamar Odom and still been able to win games but Gasol’s transformation from an all-star to the bum that his beard makes him resemble is what’s really killed the Lakers. It would be one thing of Gasol’s problem was guarding Dirk Nowitzki but his problems extend far beyond that. Not only has Dirk completely dominated him but Gasol is also extremely hesitant on offense, ineffective with all of his post moves a complete mess around the basket. When Gasol gets the ball on the block it looks almost as if he’s lost any understanding of what the Lakers need him to do for them. The way he incessantly passes the ball back out to the perimeter when he gets the ball in the lowpost makes it seem like he has no idea what his role is. Rather than making quick, decisive moves towards the hoop, Gasol is passing up shots, going up for lay-ups when he’s wide open around the rim instead of dunking the ball and hesitating any time he has an open look at the basket from 16-feet.
On the other end of the floor Dirk is showing the world what Pau should be doing. Dirk gets the ball to his spots and gets the shot he wants off at will. I can’t totally knock Gasol for allowing him to do that because there are few players if any that can actually stop Dirk from doing those things. But the chink in Nowitzki’s armor has always been his defense and Gasol is frequently being checked by Dirk on the block. There are no conceivable reasons that Gasol shouldn’t be able to do the same thing to Dirk that Nowitzki is doing to him. I’m not saying that Gasol is capable of hitting those one-legged fadeaways that Dirk is constantly putting in but I am saying that Gasol has a diverse offensive game that he should be tormenting Nowitzki with every time he gets the ball. Instead, he’s not even looking at the basket when he gets into the post and opts to kick the ball out to the perimeter more than 50% of the time that he touches the ball. Gasol’s lost, confused, disheartened and defeated.
With Gasol losing his battle with Nowitzki so badly, the Lakers have needed Kobe Bryant to be overly magnificent in these first two games. Bryant’s been fabulous but he hasn’t been able to carry the Lakers passed Dallas in these first two games. He’s desperately needed help from any of those role players but so far, none of them have come close to being effective contributors. And just like Dallas has taken advantage of Gasol’s incompetence, the Mavericks’ role players have completely dominated the Lakers’ role players.
Watching J.J. Barea torch the Lakers on four straight plays in the fourth quarter of game two was telling. Barea was so in control of the game and it was one of the few times that I could actually say that one player had taken over the activities on the floor. Barea was scoring, he was setting things up and he was ripping the hearts out of the Laker faithful at the Staples Center. And he wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. He wasn’t doing one thing that wasn’t be design. He wasn’t free-lancing, he wasn’t hogging the ball. He was running Dallas’ ultra effective sets and he was making tremendous reads. He was getting to the basket when the help defense didn’t arrive, he was hitting open shooters and he was operating the Mavericks’ high pick-and-roll with Dirk perfectly. Or, he was filling his role.
That’s the thing about these Mavericks. Every single one of their players knows what they are expected to do when they are on the floor and you almost never see them do something outside of their offense. They know what their job is and they complete that job on a nightly basis. Peja Stojakovic knows his job is to come off of screens, find open spots in the defense and knockdown open three’s – and he’s shooting close to 40% from deep in the post-season. Jason Kidd knows his job is to set up the offense, get Dirk in position to score and knockdown open shots – and he’s averaging seven assists per game and shooting 39% from three-point range in the playoffs. Jason Terry knows his job is to space the floor with his excellent mid-range jumpshot and play in the occasional two-man game with Dirk in the fourth quarter and he’s done just that in the post-season. Tyson Chandler knows his job is to rebound the basketball, defend the Laker big men and roll to the rim hard to finish off alley-oops – and he’s done just that in the playoffs. Brendan Haywood, Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson all know that they aren’t expected to contribute much offensively but are relied upon for their defense – and everyone of them has done that this post-season with some interior scoring (Haywood), post-up chances (Marion) and 39% three-point shooting (Stevenson) mixed in.
The Lakers’ supporting cast may have similar job descriptions but they haven’t been able to get their jobs done. Artest and Barnes are supposed to be lockdown defenders on the wings and reliable outside shooters but without a Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony for either player to check their defense hasn’t stuck out and their three-point shots are MIA. Fisher and Blake are supposed to be veteran floor leaders that can keep the defense honest with consistent outside shooting while making sure the offense runs smoothly when they are on the floor. Fisher has done his job well but Blake is shooting 31% during the playoffs and put up a horrific 0-for-5 line from beyond the arc in game two against Dallas. And Shannon Brown is supposed to be an explosive scoring threat off the bench that can guard both guard spots but instead he’s shot 19% from three in the playoffs and scored just six points per game while playing some extremely poor defense.
The Lakers may have the best player in this series but Dirk is a close second to Kobe and with Andrew Bynum being the only other Laker star to make a positive impact in this series the truth of the matter is that Dallas is the better team. That may be different when all of the Lakers play their best ball but we’ve been saying that for years and at this point it’s quite clear that getting everyone on the Lakers to produce at their peak at once is a pipe dream. I’m not saying the Lakers can’t come back in this series – with a strong resurgence from Pau Gasol I’m confident the Lakers could even up the series this weekend – but if they don’t get anything else from their role players Kobe and Bynum won’t be able to do it alone. Because the Mavs are a team that go far beyond their stars. Yes, Dirk does the majority of their scoring but the rest of their roster is filled with effective, efficient and committed role players that know what to do when they get onto the floor. It’s a common belief that the Lakers are the most talented team in the league but aside from their top four players, that talent has yet to show up and at this point there’s little reason to believe that the Mavericks aren’t the more complete basketball team at this point.
And the are winning the coaching battle as well, but that’s a different story for a different day.