If we've learned one thing from the first round, it's that perceptions can change quickly in the postseason. When the regular season ended, Portland was expected to hand Dallas another letdown, and Los Angeles seemed to be losing its edge. Now the winner of this series will likely be the favorite to advance to the NBA Finals. Dirk Nowitzki played like an MVP against Portland, and the Mavericks showed the depth, resilience and confidence to be a tough out this year. And after a rocky opener against New Orleans, the Lakers rounded into playoff form and shoved the Hornets aside with some impressive defensive performances.
Dirk Nowitzki vs. Lakers' frontcourt. Nowitzki was masterful against Portland and practically unguardable against a team that had both strength and athleticism to wield against him in the frontcourt. The Lakers will have a similar problem in this series. They don't have a great matchup in their starting five, where Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol may give Nowitzki trouble on the low block, but aren't nearly as effective when he draws them out to the perimeter. Ron Artest's strength and length may be disruptive, but Nowitzki has a definite size advantage on post-ups and a versatile repertoire of moves that can be baffling to smaller players. Lamar Odom has the size to handle him in the paint and the length and mobility to stay in front of him on the perimeter, but while Odom has been solid offensively, Gasol and Bynum demand more attention on that end of the floor. The longer one of them has to sit in favor of Odom, the longer the Lakers will have to make do without their best offensive options. That makes this the key matchup in this series. If Nowitzki can't consistently carry Dallas, it will be very difficult for the Mavericks to stay close.
Tyson Chandler's foul trouble. The Mavericks' toughness that was so impressive against Portland started with their frontcourt dominance, something for which Chandler set the tone. His 13 offensive rebounds neutralized an otherwise solid Blazers defensive effort in Game 5, and his physical presence inside helped turn Portland into a jump-shooting team during the series. But that was when he stayed out of foul trouble. The two games Portland won were also the two in which Chandler had five or more fouls and was limited to 30 or fewer minutes. His presence will be even more critical against L.A.'s enormous front line. If Chandler can make it tough on Gasol -- who is already off to a cold start in the postseason -- and Bynum, Dallas can hang tough in this series. But if he can't avoid foul trouble, the Lakers' advantage down low may be overwhelming.
The Lakers' bench. The Mavericks can't match the Lakers' one-two punch of Gasol and Kobe Bryant. But they showed in their first-round series with Portland that they can piece together a number of solid performances into a lethal combination that could keep pace with the Lakers. Los Angeles, though, is heavily dependent on its starters and, outside of Odom, got very little from the bench during its opening-round victory over New Orleans. But if it can get one of its reserves -- Steve Blake, Shannon Brown or Matt Barnes, in particular -- to step up and have a big series, it could prove to be more than Dallas can handle.
This series is shaping up to be a war. The Mavericks displayed a level of toughness during their win over Portland that they haven't shown in recent years. Just look at their response to the Blazers' hard fouls in Game 6. Obviously these aren't the same soft Mavericks of the past. But in the last two games against New Orleans, the Lakers rounded into true playoff form. Their defense was impressive in the last five games of the series, when they held New Orleans to 85.4 points and a mere 38.4 percent shooting in the fourth quarter of those games. The Mavericks don't look like they have enough weapons to win the series, but they may be tough enough to push it to the brink. Lakers in seven.