Series Preview: Lakers – Mavericks

The last time these two teams squared off against one another, four players were ejected.

With the Lakers holding a comfortable 90-73 lead in the fourth quarter, Steve Blake drove to the basket, past the cement-shoed Jason Terry, who, being beat, pushed Blake in the back to the hardwood.

Tempers flared, testosterone levels quickly rose, and a chest-bumping match quickly ensued between Blake and Terry.

As Jack Nicholson looked on through purple lenses, the confrontation escalated. Skinny Artest, also known as Matt Barnes, came to Blake’s aid, charging after Terry like a pissed off Spanish bull, nostrils flaring. Brendan Haywood met Barnes, pointing his finger at him as Barnes walked the sidelines of the Mavericks bench when Mavericks assistant coach, Terry Stotts, attempted to calm Barnes, and was slung to the ground. An oval mouthed Mark Cuban cried all the while in the background behind the Mavericks bench.

Off to the locker room went Blake, Barnes, Terry, and Haywood. That was March 31.

On May 2, the two will meet again in the Western Conference semifinals. But let us not confuse the Mavericks’ late game demeanor on March 31 with toughness. Terry’s cheap shot was out of frustration. Dallas would go on to lose by 28 points, 110-82, shooting just 36.1% from the floor (6-26 from three). It seemed the only area of the game they were efficient in was committing fouls, 27, allowing the Lake Show 39 chances at freebies.

If the March 31 contest can serve as the shape of things to come, let us rub this crystal ball and garner it for all she’s worth.

POINT GUARD
Jason Kidd vs. Derek Fisher

Neither can move the way they did ten years ago but both Jason Kidd and Derek Fisher are savvy veterans who pick their spots and pick them well. With that said, Kidd has the upper hand in that he impacts the outcome of a Mavericks win or loss in a much greater way than does Fish for the Lakers.

Kidd’s improved outside shooting makes him dangerous for a defender to lag off of, but he’s also a very streaky shooter. Fisher, on the other hand, doesn’t shoot often but when he does, it’s never ill-advised – and I think we all know about his clutch performances. Other than Robert Horry and Jerry West, can you name anyone other than Derek Fisher you’d rather have the ball with under three seconds to go and zero timeouts and a full court to sprint down? Your thoughts Jameer Nelson? Manu Ginobli?

Still, the Mavericks don’t win without a big contribution from Kidd. He’ll notch a triple-double or near close to one in at least two games. Fisher serves a different purpose; and although his role is just as vital, it has more to do with his leadership in the locker room and on the court than how many points, assists, and steals he racks up.

ADVANTAGE: Dallas Mavericks

SHOOTING GUARD
DeShawn Stevenson vs. Kobe Bryant

Do I even need to waste my breath?

No.

I will anyway.

I can’t even get DeShawn Stevenson to drop more than three points in practice mode on NBA 2K11 for Playstation 3, so don’t expect for the 6’5” wing to go bananas starting Monday night. Then again, the tattoo of our nation’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, on Stevenson’s neck explains it all. Ole Abe is worth five and so is Stevenson’s offensive output, unleashing 5.2 ppg. for the 2010-11 season.

But let’s be real: Stevenson isn’t in town for his offense. He gets the defensive assignment, and that assignment is you know who.

Kobe. Well, The Black Mamba’s a different story altogether. In my magic crystal ball, I’m foreseeing at least one vintage Kobe output in this series. Don’t be surprised if #24 goes for 52 or 53 one night. Sure, it’s not 2007 and we’re unlikely to see him drop 62 through three quarters but just as he went soaring through the air for a thunderous jam against Emeka Okafor in Round 1 against the New Orleans Hornets, to think there’s not a little bit of mustard left in his game is to be mistaken.

Badly mistaken.

Sure, Kobe put up some stinkers against the Mavs this year (6-20 FG in 33 min and 8-21 FG in 30 min) but both were in wins: the former a 96-91 win at Dallas and the latter in a 110-82 routing in Los Angeles. That tells you something: that the Lakers are balanced enough for Kobe to stink it up and still get the W.

Let Dirk Nowitzki drop sulfur bombs and the Mavs lose. They don’t have the same balanced attack. Take, for example, their two losses in which The Big German goes for 25 pts (10-19 FG) and 27 pts (10-20 FG). The Mavericks leave with their tail between their legs.

ADVANTAGE: Los Angeles Lakers

SMALL FORWARD
Shawn Marion vs. Ron Artest

Marion played reluctant in the first three games of the Portland series, averaging 7.0 ppg and 5.3 rpg. Redeeming himself in the final three games, he averaged 14.0 ppg and 7.0 rpg. For the Mavericks to stand a fighting chance against the Lakers, Marion will need to mirror his last three games against Portland or better. Considering Marion is averaging 18.7 ppg (at nearly 60% shooting) and 6.7 rpg against the Lakers this year, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Where he’ll need to excel, however, is on defense.

Expect Carlisle to place Marion on Bryant at times as well as Odom. His length and athleticism should pose a problem for Bryant, whereas against Odom, the advantage is neutralized.

Say Artest and you instantly think defense (or crazy or The Malice at the Palace). He’ll kiss his guns a couple of times in this series, most likely after manhandling Peja Stojakovic on a key fourth quarter possession. Artest is a pesky defender with quick hands and Stojakovic saves his best choke jobs for the playoffs. The only hope for Peja is if he can literally get Artest to wrap his hands around his neck and choke Peja all the way to a two-game suspension. But I don’t see it happening. That’s in the past for Artest who is fresh off winning the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award.

ADVANTAGE: Los Angeles, for the sole reason that defense runs the show in the playoffs. Even with the extra miles on his boots, Artest still has enough in his tank to get under the skin of multiple players at multiple positions (PG, SG, SF, PF), including Nowitzki.

POWER FORWARD
Dirk Nowitzki vs. Pau Gasol

Both are routinely criticized for “playing soft.” It’s a European thing. Like listening to the music of David Hasselhoff or still wearing Zubaz zebra-striped workout pants with the elastic ankle ban at the gym.

Seriously, I once saw a film clip of Nowitzki wearing Zubaz pants working out.

The reality is Gasol’s a long string bean, so unless he gains 40 lbs. of muscle, that perception isn’t changing. It has more to do with how he looks than how he plays. The Big German, on the other hand, simply isn’t a true post player – not that he can’t do some damage on the block. Would you believe his basketball idol growing up was none other than Scottie Pippen. ‘Tis true.

And what’s so bad about not being a post player if you’re 7’0” tall and can stroke it from the perimeter with 40% accuracy? Yeah, it kills you on the glass in one regard but it also helps you on the glass in the other regard, pulling the opposing team’s big man out there with you.

Gasol wins the battle in the paint. Nowitzki wins it on the perimeter. And the last time I checked, three points is worth more than two. But the again, I have dyscalculia so what do I know?

ADVANTAGE: Dallas Mavericks — but only by a hair.

CENTER
Tyson Chandler vs. Andrew Bynum

This, my friends, is the key matchup. Since the All-Star break, Bynum has been a stone cold killer. Think Clint Eastwood, only taller. Wearing shorts. Who somewhat resembles Tracy Morgan. Bynum seems to save his best games for Dallas, averaging 16.7 ppg and 11.7 rpg, shooting a ridiculous 70.4% from the field.

Ridiculous.

I love Chandler to death, I really do. I take that back. I love my wife, daughter, and dog. But Chandler, as good as he is on the defensive end, cannot match up with Bynum. Bynum was the Lakers’ MVP in their series against New Orleans and might as well be their MVP in this one. Quit your jawing Colin Cowherd.

ADVANTAGE: Los Angeles Lakers

SUPPORTING CAST
As good as Jason Terry is, Lamar Odom is better. He’s big. He’s long. He’s athletic. He can rebound. He can get out and run it as well as any point guard in the league – at 6’10”. Odom is the perfect fit for the Lakers triangle offense off the bench. Coming off the Sixth Man of the Year Award, look for Odom to continue the Lakers run to their third straight championship.

Best of the rest: Shannon Brown, Steve Blake, and Matt Barnes give the Lakers added depth, primarily so from a defensive standpoint. Sure, Dallas has some nice talent coming off their bench as well with JJ Barea and Peja Stojakovic, in addition to Terry, but like I said before, defense runs the show in the playoffs and none of these guys can match the Lake Show in that department.

But hell, who doesn’t like seeing Barea zip around like a little fruit fly out there?

ADVANTAGE: Los Angeles Lakers

COACHING
Rick Carlisle vs. Phil Jackson

Sorry Rick, but The Zen Master only wins in threes and well, you’re sort of in his way. As the Buddha once said, “I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done.” And what remains for Jackson to do is win his twelfth championship ring as a head coach.

P.S. If this matchup were Red Auerbach vs. Phil Jackson, I’d still pick The Zen Master. That’s right. I said it.

ADVANTAGE: Los Angeles Lakers

SERIES PREDICTION: Lakers in six: 4-2. Go ahead and call up Jack Nicholson and have him teach Mark Cuban the ropes in his role as the resurrected Randall P. McMurphy for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: The Sequel. The Lakers are going to drive Cuban to the looney-bin.

The Secret To Butler’s Success

Butler’s success doesn’t rest on the shoulders of one man, not Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard, or even coach Brad Stevens. The Bulldogs are the quintessential team with their defense leading the way. On each possession, they play hard-nosed, physical defense. They show at the right time and rotate to leave no man unguarded.

It isn’t about controlling the tempo as much as it is, as Brad Stevens says, “prioritizing what is important” and being the aggressor.

Many an NBA analyst will argue there are no surefire NBA studs on this Bulldogs roster; I would disagree.

If a team can honestly believe Sebastian Telfair had what it takes to be selected in the first round, don’t tell me Shelvin Mack isn’t worth putting on the board.

With the right team, Mack’s quarterbacking at the point guard position can, and I believe will, translate at the next level. He has the right size (6’3″) and body build (a solid 215 lbs.), and a composure only matched by UConn’s Kemba Walker during this year’s NCAA tournament.

Mack plays physical, knowing when to bump his man off balance to get his shot (like he did VCU’s undersized Rodriquez). His decision-making is unparalleled. If a “star” can be pointed to on this Butler team, it would be Mack. But unlike most stars, there aren’t stretches within a game where he jacks up two or three bad shots; and in the close games, such as what Butler has played through March and now April, two or three bad shots would have already ended their second straight Cinderella run through the tourney.

That’s where Mack stands out. He doesn’t get rattled. The closer a game comes down to the wire, the looser he plays. Not that there aren’t exceptions: i.e. the poor foul he committed as the seconds waned down against Pittsburgh.

Nevertheless, Mack isn’t a one-man team. Neither is UConn. One man teams don’t make it to the championship – in the case of Butler, two years in a row; for UConn, two of the last three years.

Basketball writers, like anyone putting a pen to paper, want to make the tournament about a star.

Does FedEx employee Chuck Noland get off the island in Cast Away without Wilson? What if Forrest Gump leaves Lt. Dan behind in the jungles of Vietnam? Do we find him as endearing? What if Woody’s jealousy erupts to the point where he pushes Andy’s new space-ranger toy, Buzz Lightyear, out of the window? Okay, bad example. And enough with the Tom Hanks references.

The point is Butler knows The Secret, as Bill Simmons likes to put it. And that secret is sacrifice. With Butler, it really is about the name on the front of the jersey and not the back.

The Butler Bulldogs aren’t about one player and they know it (unlike BYU). They are about the pieces that make the whole. If Matt Howard doesn’t grab the rebound and attempt a desperation full-court shot against Pittsburgh, he doesn’t get fouled. Butler goes home. The end.

If Zach Hahn doesn’t go on an 8-0 scoring spurt against VCU, Butler goes home. The end.

If Ronald Nored doesn’t lock down just about every opposing player he’s matched up against (and we’ll probably see him checking Kemba), Butler probably doesn’t even make the tournament at all.

They know this. Brad Stevens knows this.

Not to say UConn doesn’t.

I just happen to believe this year the shot does fall for Butler and they leave the 2011 NCAA Champions.

What could be better than a true Cinderella, a mid-major school that enrolls just over 5,000 people, putting on her glass slipper and dancing – really, truly dancing?

Butler, to quote Lee Ann Womack, “I hope you dance.”

Catching Up With Earl Monroe

Can you explain the origin of your two legendary nicknames, Earl the Pearl and Black Jesus?

Earl “The Pearl” came from when I was in college my senior year. My first ten games of the season, I was averaging close to 50 points per game. A guy wrote a column and listed the scores of each game and the caption of the column was, “These are Earl’s pearls.” And from that, Earl “The Pearl.”

“Black Jesus” came out of the fact that when I was in Baltimore playing, guys on the team would just call me “Jesus” because I was supposed to be leading them to the Promised Land, and it just kind of carried over from there.

How do you feel about the dynamics of the game today–no handchecking, players not being able to be as emotional as they used to be without getting a technical–as compared to when you played?

The game has changed to make it more exciting and more accessible to fans. When I played, we did have handchecking, which restricted [a player's] movement. They’ve taken that away. A lot of other things they call tighter to allow the offense to roam more and be freer along the perimeter.

What do you feel the Knicks need in order to win the championship, whether it is players or the style of play, to get to the Promised Land?

A presence underneath and a lot more rebounding. If they’d get that and with the role players they have to establish themselves, basically they’d be in a position to start contending. You can’t go [into an opponent's arena], get rebounded every night, and rely on your offense. You need to be able to stop people and rebound the ball.

Given the current Knicks roster, do you see any long-term issues with shot distribution between Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire being that both are pure scorers?

No, I don’t see any real issue. You look at [Landry] Fields for what he was doing the first part of the year; his production will probably go down. But the ball will get into the hands of the guys who can do it, especially when it comes down to end of game situations. It’ll be in Billups’, Stoudemire’s, and Anthony’s hands. Then you have some reliable guys who can shoot the ball from the perimeter. You’ve got Williams who’s a pretty good three-point shooter and Walker has come into his own in getting more playing time.

We forget about #23 (Toney Douglas), who has been out there playing really good basketball lately. He’s been a good asset to this team.

About five years ago, you said that no one in the game reminded you of you. With the increase in guard talent the league has seen recently, has your opinion changed at all?

Not one iota. (Laughs)

When I look out, I see all the stuff I used to do just done in different ways but never all together. In a nutshell, my game was kind of unique. When I came in, no one actually played that way. The things I did, people were like “Oh shucks, he did that!” But now, those things are done everyday, just not the same way… with style and grace. (Laughs)

Would the teams of your era be able to compete with the top-caliber teams in the League today?

As far as the Knicks teams are concerned, I believe we could have been competitive with any team today mainly because we played defense. We had great outside shooters. We didn’t shoot the three-pointer back then but we had great shooters in DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas, Bill Bradley, Clyde, even myself and Henry Bibby. So we would have been very competitive in that way.

The most intangible part was that we were a thinking group. Everybody was a veteran and understood the game. We could think the game through. Of all the young guys coming into the game today, I think that’s one of the glaring pieces missing – understanding the game of basketball.

Your thoughts on super teams: Dwyane, LeBron, Chris Bosh. Now Amar’e and Carmelo?

For the cities those guys are playing in, I think it’s a good thing. (Laughs)

Everything comes in phases. You can’t get everyone on a team. Pretty soon things will start to spread back out. At one time, everybody wanted to come to New York. Once you got ESPN and all the media coverage, guys realized it wasn’t that important to be in New York. Fans would still grow to know who you are.

It’s all about phases and I don’t think this is something that’s going to continue because if you’re only going to have five teams with all the players then you’re not going to have a league.

If you had your selection to pick up any of the free agents at the end of this year or the 2012 season to place on the Knicks roster, who would you pick and why do you think they’d fit?

First guy that comes to my mind is Dwight Howard.

Yeah, that’s a good one.

(Laughs) If you pick up Dwight Howard with who the Knicks have now, I think you’re well on your way.

Do you think a Knicks team that gives up 109 points per game and plays virtually no defense has any chance of winning an NBA championship right now?

No. No chance. That’s one of the things I alluded to earlier. You have to have some kind of inside presence. Rebounding and interior defense is what is going to propel the team to win the championship.

With big guys now stepping out of the paint and onto the perimeter ala a European style, how do you feel about the diminished role of the big man in today’s NBA and teams without a post player anchoring the block?

Basically, the game got quicker.

Guys are getting up and down the floor a lot more. The addition of the three-point shot has opened up the game. Reality is you really don’t have a lot of back-to-the-basket centers anymore. Now at the same time, if you’ve got agile players, long players, and whatnot, you can get away from it.

If you look back to the 90’s when Chicago was doing it, they had Bill Cartwright but he wasn’t a dominant center, so they got away with it. They had Grant and Pippen who played good defense and got the ball out and got running… and they had that other guy. What’s his name? Oh, Michael Jordan. (Laughs)

On this [Knicks] team, if you just had a good center who could rebound and block shots, that’s all he’d need to do because you’ve already got enough firepower to move ahead. When you start going to Europe and getting guys out of there, they weren’t back-to-the-basket players. They were out there [on the perimeter] shooting three-pointers. And if you go all the way back you’ll see that most of your big guys always did want to shoot three pointers and come out from in the lane. This is just a natural progression. Pretty soon, you’ll have teams with just starting forwards. They’re not even going to be talking about centers anymore.