The Dallas Mavericks are better than the Los Angeles Lakers.
It is a weird thing to type, but it’s true. They may not have been for 40 minutes, 30 seconds on Friday night — the Lakers were up eight points with 7:30 left in the game — but the Mavericks offense dominated the rest of the way. Dallas won 98-92, on a huge, late comeback.
Dallas will move on. These two teams will play at least one more game or three because the rules demand it — but this series is over. Not because no team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit before in the NBA playoffs, but because right now Dallas is better than Los Angeles.
Kobe Bryant was rightfully frustrated afterward, talking about the Lakers’ mistakes; there were plenty. But Dallas is forcing them. This is about Dallas doing the things a contender does and the Lakers being unable to this year.
Dallas has the single best player in this series in Dirk Nowitzki (he had 32 points in this one on just 19 shots). Each game someone else has stepped up and made the key plays to be the other scorer Dallas needs (Peja Stojakovic with 11 in the fourth quarter Friday). Dallas is executing better in the fourth quarter. Dallas is getting better coaching (or at least the Dallas players are executing what the coach wants).
When the Lakers led by eight in the fourth quarter, Dallas started to rain threes down — the Mavs shot 60 percent in the fourth quarter. It was not the two-time defending champs, it was Dallas that closed.
The Lakers played a much better defensive game in the second and third quarters, the best they played in this series. Their spacing, their aggressiveness on closeouts were better. At least it got better after a first-quarter shootout, with the Mavs knocking down open 3-pointers and the Lakers working hard on getting the ball inside.
Andrew Bynum was a beast inside; it may have been his best game as a pro. He finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds, but he was by far the most energetic and motivated Laker on the floor. His steal out at the 3-point line and finishing dunk was a signature play… or would have been if the Lakers had won.
But the Lakers never pulled away. Dallas has been too good all series to let the game slip away. This is where Jason Terry’s 23 points came in, he was the scoring spark the Mavs needed.
Then in the fourth quarter the Mavs started to rain threes on the Lakers. The Lakers stopped helping the helper — one Lakers defender would get beat, another Laker would slide in the paint to help stop penetration but nobody would rotate over to help out the helper. The result was Stojakovic getting wide-open threes. Even Nowitzki got wide-open threes. Kobe was as guilty as anybody. This was the “trust issue” Bynum talked about, and if you define trust by your defensive rotations, then the Lakers still have trust issues.
The use of Stojakovic was brilliant by Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle — the Lakers had gone with three bigs (Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Bynum) but by putting Peja in, it forced Odom to come away from the paint and cover. It spaced the Lakers out and created room for others — which the Mavericks used well.
Dallas executed. The Lakers stopped executing.
As they often do at the end of games, the Lakers threw the triangle out the window and went to isolation or pick-and-roll plays. The result was Bynum not touching the ball once down the stretch. Not once. It was Kobe shooting over double-teams while Odom stood open 12 feet away. It was terrible inbound passes from Fisher. It was a bad foul by Fisher 28 feet from the basket.
Meanwhile, Dallas just kept doing their thing and hitting shots (11-of-28 from three, 39.7 percent).
This is not the end of the Lakers dynasty. The core of this team — Gasol, Bynum, Kobe, Odom, even Ron Artest — are all young enough to make another run. The team needs work, but the core is there to make another run.
But not this year. This year they are done.
The Mavericks are the better team.