Are the Lakers really in trouble? Are the Mavericks for real this time around?
History usually says no. Something is about to budge.
The Mavericks sounded the Lakers' alarms with their 96-94 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at Staples Center on Monday. A 16-point, third-quarter Lakers lead was gone even quicker than Jason Kidd could say "good no-call," which is surely the opinion he held when he rode the back of Kobe Bryant just enough with three seconds left to force a turnover on a handoff from Pau Gasol. Kidd was fouled immediately, burying one of two free throws to secure a two-point lead.
It was, more than likely, the opposite opinion of what Kidd or the Mavericks would have held moments earlier. After Kidd forced Bryant into an ill-advised turnover in the paint with 20 seconds left, Pau Gasol was whistled for riding the back of Dirk Nowitzki as he caught an inbounds pass from Kidd.
The two-time defending champion Lakers, as coach Phil Jackson would later say, didn't make the Mavericks earn it at the end and held the belief that they "gave our game away." Nowitzki's two free throws gave Dallas its first lead since late in the second quarter, and the Mavericks were on their way to convincing the masses that maybe it's too soon to write them off yet again.
Forget the part about the Mavericks bowing out in the first round in three of the past four seasons and focus on the way in which they're winning. They suffered a seemingly devastating loss to Portland in Game 4 of the first round when they gave up a 23-point lead, then responded with convincing wins in Games 5 and 6 to put the Blazers' fire out. The latest outing had all the makings of the same spirit, with Dallas responding despite a second-quarter meltdown in which a flurry of technical fouls, a surreal half-court foul that led to three Lakers free throws and a loss of composure turned their three-point lead into a nine-point deficit in the final 2 minutes, 30 seconds of play.
A 20-6 third-quarter run sparked by the two-way play of little-used small forward Corey Brewer changed it all. Then Nowitzki scored 11 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter, when Kidd's late defense on Bryant had everything to do with the finish. Nowitzki & Co. aren't quite showing shades of 2006 just yet, when they surged to the Finals before choking against Miami, but they may just be for real.
"I think so," Nowitzki said when asked if his team has grown. "We've got a bunch of veterans, and they've obviously been through a lot. Kidd has been through two Finals before [with New Jersey]. I've been to a final. To do that, you've got to go through some adversity and fight through some stuff.
"Even in a playoff series, there will be some tough losses and some tough plays, but you've got to recover."
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, whose team lost two of three regular-season matchups against the Lakers while posting an identical record (57-25), has long since noticed his team's gritty ways as well.
"We were down 12 points in the first three or four minutes in Game 6 at Portland," he said. "It's tough [on the road]. You've got a hostile crowd, everything going against you. But in those situations, I don't have to say much. Our guys hang in. They rally together in the timeouts. They encourage each other, and they keep playing. We've got the kind of team that's going to keep playing."
Meanwhile, the Lakers hardly hesitated to admit their own concern. As was the case against New Orleans in the first round, they dropped the opener to an opponent that was seen as inferior.
As wasn't the case against the Hornets, the notion that they will recover doesn't seem so certain. Especially if this formula is repeated.
Bryant took nearly three times the shots of any of his teammates (scoring 36 points on 14-of-29 shooting with no assists), then insisted the lack of balance had nothing to do with him. Andrew Bynum drew the heat of this spotlight with his ineffectual outing, as he finished with just eight points and five rebounds in 29 minutes. Ron Artest was equally quiet, scoring two points on 1-of-8 shooting. Gasol had a balanced outing in his own right (15 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists) but took only 10 shots and had three turnovers.
"I'm gonna do what I do," Bryant said. "I think the second unit and that crew has to make a concerted effort to get the ball into Pau, get the ball into Andrew. It had nothing to do with me. I've had games where I shot the ball 10 times, and Pau and Andrew didn't contribute that much. I've had times where I shot the ball 30 times and they had big games. ... It had nothing to do with my shots."
Bryant could have avoided the self-scrutiny had he buried his open three-point attempt at the buzzer off an inbounds pass, but it was long and the Lakers' leash was suddenly short.
"I'm highly concerned," Bryant said. "This team can beat us. It's clear. So, we've just got to come ready to play in Game 2.
"I don' think [having experienced a series-opening loss against New Orleans] helps. I think if anything it can hurt you, because you get complacent and overconfident and think Game 2 is a formality that you're going to win. You have to still have a sense of urgency and significance for Game 2."
And if not, here comes trouble.