It’s really about the next two games.
The Los Angeles Lakers, their dreams of a three-peat — a fourth three-peat for departing coach Phil Jackson — and a spot in the NBA pantheon rests on sweeping the next two games. Which starts with winning one, Game 3, and planting the seed of doubt in the minds of all the Dallas Mavericks and their fans.
For the Mavericks, their drive to shake the perception that they are soft, that they melt in the pressure of the playoffs, that they are not contenders, all can be brushed aside with even a split at home.
The first two games of this series set a tone and set the stage. But Game 3, that will be a war. The Lakers will not go quietly into that good night, they will rage, rage against the dying of their three-peat light. Dallas can expect the best Lakers team they have seen yet.
This weekend’s games will define this series, and one way or another define these team’s seasons.
Dallas has stood toe-to-toe with the Lakers and not been overwhelmed by their length. Andrew Bynum has still been good, but Pau Gasol has struggled against the Mavs, looking fatigued from banging bodies and uncomfortable, unable to get to his spots. Gasol has seemed frustrated and that has led to bad decisions. The Lakers cannot have that — without Gasol as their second-best player the Lakers go from contenders to just good.
That is the first challenge Dallas will be sure to see — Gasol is going to have a good game soon. He is too skilled, too prideful not to. He isn’t wired like Kobe Bryant or a lot of players, he is not overtly competitive, but Phil’s prodding is better for him than just a yeller of a coach. Jackson knows how to motivate him. Gasol is intellectual. He’s also competitive. He will have a good game.
That’s the inside, on the outside Dallas needs to contest the Lakers jump-shooters — Los Angeles will not be 2-for-20 cold again from three like they were in Game 2. The Lakers just flat out missed good looks all game. That will change. Probably. The Lakers bench seems able to go that cold at any time.
Meanwhile, Dallas must keep making their jumpers. To call them a jump-shooting team has been a euphemism for soft, but the truth is Dallas did get a lower percentage of its points in the paint than any other team this past season. It’s the perfect offense against the Lakers — Los Angeles wants to take away the paint first — so long as the shots are falling. Which they have for Dallas so far, but they cannot go cold.
The Lakers remain a supremely confident team — they feel if they can just play up to their potential and eliminate mistakes, they can be right back in this. They were loose after practice and before the flight to Dallas. They think that a few defensive adjustments will help — look for Derek Fisher to stop trying to fight over the top of picks. Look for the Lakers’ bigs to either show out hard or back off when Dallas runs the high pick, rather than stand in the middle and essentially be a second pick on the guard.
But mostly they think they just need to play with better focus. That’s what winning two titles brings you — the confidence bordering on arrogance to think you can do the nearly impossible.
For Dallas, their confidence after two games will be tested. Everyone remembers them being up 2-0 in the 2006 finals against the Miami Heat; they remember years of playoff collapses. This year feels different — Tyson Chandler spearheads a new bad-ass attitude — but they will have to prove it. Again.
They will have to prove it this weekend, this Friday or Sunday. Either they will move one win away from the Western Conference finals, or they will see a huge shadow creeping over them.
Dallas has set the tone, and if it can stand its ground again and get a win or two, the reputation of the past will fade away. As will the Lakers.
But it will not be easy. The Lakers still have their best punch to throw. Game 3 is going to be the game of the series. Well, maybe until Game 4.