The first game against the defending NBA Champions will be the first time the Lakers return to Dallas since the embarrassing Game 4 loss that knocked the Lakers out of the playoffs last May. Not to mention the hostility the Dallas crowd will have towards center Andrew Bynum for his unprofessional forearm shove to former Mavericks guard J.J Barea. The Mavericks and Lakers have faced each other once this season. It was in L.A., and took a buzzer beating 3-point shot from Derek Fisher for the Lakers to slide by with the victory.
This game, however, is in Dallas, where the Mavericks have started to play to the level that won them the championship last year. With a 20-12 overall record and 12-5 at home, the Mavs have won six of their last seven games with wins over Denver twice, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Philadelphia 76ers. It is imperative that the Lakers take their time on offense, rotate on defense quick and efficiently, and most importantly, limit the turnovers. The Mavericks are a team that will make you pay for your turnovers. They can get out on the break and run while successfully converting lay-ups and 3-points at a very high rate. If the Lakers possess the ball, limit their turnovers, and take high percentage shots, they will beat the Mavs.
By far the toughest game for the Lakers will be Thursday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder (23-7), the best in the west. Led by All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the Thunder are the favorite to represent the Western Conference in the 2012 NBA Finals. This squad is scary good as they are the complete basketball team. They play solid, physical defense anchored by their center Serge Ibaka, who leads the NBA in blocks and unprecedented 3.03 per game. On the other end of the court, the Thunder are offensively sound led by Kevin Durant. Although Durant has struggled in the past when guarded by Metta World Peace, it is usually the play of point guard Russell Westbrook that ultimately kills the Lakers.
At 6’3 and 187 pounds, Westbrook’s explosiveness unravels the heart of the Lakers defense by getting into the middle of the key and dishing the ball to the perimeter for open shots, or taking it all the way to the basket and having the ability to score around the rim. The key to a Lakers victory is easier said than done — keep Westbrook and back-up point guard Eric Maynor out of the paint.
As the Lakers head into one of the toughest stretches of the season, they have the luxury of the All-Star break ahead, but before they can relax on their six days off, they are faced with three teams that all have great guard play, the Lakers’ Achilles heel. This could exploit that weakness by exacerbating the problem even more, or proving that the guard play is not the problem. Anyway you see it, Portland, Dallas, and Oklahoma City are three important games for the Lakers to not only win, but also play well in to give themselves the belief that they are still a championship contending team.