They Are Who No One Thought They Were

Take dat wid chu.

The city of Los Angeles is in shock and it is not because of a botched breast augmentation or one too many injections of Botox. No, it is because their team, the team they depend on so that they can be seen on national television, the Los Angeles Lakers are down 2-0 in a best of seven series with the Dallas Mavericks. Not only are they down 2-0 but the two games they lost were at the Staples Center. Right now the best thing the Staples Center has going for it is Youtube highlights of Blake Griffin, who just won rookie of the year.

This is the first time the two franchises have met in the playoffs since 1988 and the series has lived up to its billing, for one team at least. The Dallas Mavericks came back from a 16 point deficit in the first game of the series to win 96-94. This victory due to their extended bench which outscored the Lakers’ reserves 40-25. Phil Jackson was not overly thrilled about the developments in game one and went as far as emulating his star play in saying that he, and his team, was “worried.”

Kobe Bryant had said, after the Lakers game one loss, that he (I am paraphrasing here) was worried, and that the Maverick could beat the Lakers. Yes, Bryant is talking about the same Lakers that were a shoe-in to three-peat yet again. Bryant is also talking about the team with the most feared frontcourt outside of Dwight Howard. These are the Lakers, are they not? They are lords over the Western Conference (when the San Antonio Spurs are out of the equation), right? Who can possibly beat them?

The Dallas Mavericks.

Early on in game two, head coach Rick Carlisle set the tone. It wasn’t anything Marv Albert and Steve Kerr picked up on instantly, but it created an arena in which the Mavericks could operate on their terms.

Carlisle controlled the matchups. It was obvious to see from the start. When he went small and Dallas extended the lead, Phil Jackson was forced to adjust. Carlisle and Jackson have met before in the playoffs. Jackson got the best of him the first time they met. But, can one really say that when the team Jackson had before was a Bryant/Shaquille O’Neal team? No. That was the equivalent of Jordan/Pippen in 2000-03. It cannot be ignored, but it cannot be ignored in the same manner as Barry Bonds’ single season home run record cannot be ignored.

Phil Jackson and his Lakers had no answer in game two. Bryant provided and answer occasionally, but that was only to keep his team close. Close is never good enough, though.

The Dallas Mavericks played their tempo throughout the game. It would be easy to say that 40 of the 48 minutes were dominated by Dallas. The Lakers were lethargic and could not contend with a superior opponent. Los Angeles is not used to an opponent who can match them physically in the frontcourt. They have had a cakewalk to the finals the past few season. Now, they have a test. Now, they are losing.

Here at the Beef, especially this author, we love Ron Artest. However, we love him more in a pinstriped Indiana Pacers’ jersey than we ever could in purple and gold. In this series, he is little more than a distraction. The media will always want to remember him as the protagonist of the Malice in the Palace. That is not who he is any longer, though. He is still Ron Artest (and will potentially be suspended for game three), but Tony Allen has stolen his title in terms of defensive will and tenacity on the court.

Artest has become a non-factor  in this series. Who can he legitimately guard? Dirk Nowitzki can shoot over him and Shawn Marion can drive by him. He is out of place. The only player that he can flummox anymore is Peja Stojakovic and that is only because it is not difficult to defend a spot-up shooter. Yet, that is not to say that Stojakovic cannot get by Artest using the dribble. As he did so in both games.

Dallas controlled just about every aspect of game two. No, scratch that, they won the game handily and therefore controlled the game throughout. Even when the Lakers gained the lead, for the fleeting moments that they did, it did not appear as they had any semblance of control on the game. Dallas was making a statement, and that statement came from Würzburg, Germany.

Nobody in the NBA can guard Nowitzki. His off-legged jumper is something that will go down in the annals of NBA history as something that can never be duplicated. Charles Barkley said that when you guard Nowitzki you need a cigarette and a blindfold. Phil Jackson, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Ron Artest have masked their eyes and are presently smoking. What Nowitzki has done would be incomprehensible had we not seen him execute his offense to perfection for the past 13 season. Even though we have seen it before, it is not any less remarkable and is still spectacularly difficult to defend.

The Mavericks have always been considered a soft, jump shooting team. Fair enough, they were. But ask the Lakers if that is what they are currently. Dallas has grown, not only in size but in toughness. Tyson Chandler has changed the mentality in Dallas.

Los Angeles’ lauded big men have met their match through two games in the Western Conference Semi Finals. Andrew Bynum has not played like the young, overhyped center that some mistakenly believed he was, but more like the young, oversized player who is not used to taking on a challenge equal in stature to himself.

Dallas has big men to match the Lakers. When Chandler is on the court, Bynum’s numbers drop. He has only averaged 12.8 points and has an efficiency rating of -7.2. That rating is indicative of the Mavericks’ defensive resolve thus far in the series.  It is not just Chandler who is giving Bynum fits, as he is no longer swiping at the ball and instead holding his ground and not committing the foul. Along with Chandler, Brendan Haywood has also stepped up to become an unsung hero of the playoffs for the Mavericks as well.

With Haywood on the floor, Bynum’s rebounding numbers drop from 11.4, in the two games, to 8.6. His overall efficiency sees a decline as well from 1.1 to -17.1. Added to that is the fact that, through this series so far, Haywood has been accountable for every block the Mavericks have recorded while he is on the floor. Mark Cuban paid the money for a two-headed beast in the middle and that beast is dominating the defending champions.

The Mavericks are still a jump shooting team, however. This has worked against them in the past, but not so far against the Lakers. Taking the ball into the teeth of the Lakers’ defense is exactly what Los Angeles baits their opponents into doing. The Mavericks are stubborn. They still remember that Don Nelson taught them (the ones he coached at least) that the best shot is a jump shot. Only this Dallas team does not rely entirely on it.

In the two games against the Lakers, the Mavericks have employed and offense predicated on ball movement. Sure, occasionally Jason Terry holds the ball for too long and is forced into a low percentage shot but the Lakers have yet to fully capitalize on such situations. Dallas knows that driving into the paint against the Lakers is folly to an extent. But they must do it anyway. It opens up passing lanes and, as game two displayed, it leaves perimeter shooters such as DeShawn Stevenson and Stojakovic open.Three-point shooting has been key for the Mavericks thus far.

When the Mavericks do capitalize in the paint it is with J.J. Barea. So far the Los Angeles has yet to check him. In fact, they never will. Barea’s speed on the court is something that no Laker can contend with. Shannon Brown will be a step or two behind him and wholly out-of-place in terms of defensive positioning. It is testament to Barea’s courage that he competes for the same ground  on the floor that Bynum and Gasol feel is their birthright to defend. Having Steve Blake guard Barea is laughable at best right now.

The Dallas Mavericks learned from Brandon Roy. Roy torched them and lead his Portland Trail Blazers to victory in game four of the opening round, thereby tying the series 2-2. People doubted the Mavericks’ resolve. Portland never won another game in that series. Now, Dallas is on a four game win-streak. Most everyone had them written off on six in the first round but , surprise, these are not the old Dallas Mavericks. This is a team who has won four in a row and three straight on the road. Doubt them no longer.

Yes, the Mavericks have been up 2-0 before, but this time it is different. This time there will be no phantom calls that Stern calls down to his minions. Oh yes, the Lakers will fight. They must and Bryant will spearhead their assault. But, what can they do at this point? They have yet to get a meaningful stop, they are getting out coached, and Nowitzki is playing as if his defenders were rag dolls. This is Dallas’ series to win. The Lakers, after years of coasting through the Western Conference Playoffs, have finally met their match. Dallas has stung the champs and Los Angeles will not recover.

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