Lakers 96, Mavs 91: A 'Get-Acquainted' Date

Just more than a decade ago, Cuban's Mavs very specifically endeavored to build a team that could beat the Lakers in the playoffs. It was a lofty goal, and one that's never been achieved … not because there weren't some years where the perennial 50-wins-plus Mavs might've been superior to LA, but rather because the planned-for postseason duel never happened. Now? Let's brace ourselves.

We brace ourselves because that history may be about to change. The Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers might want to get familiar with one another.

"I think me and Mark Cuban gonna go out for some ice cream after the game,'' tweeted LA's Ron Artest before the Saturday night tipoff at the AAC of what would be a 96-91 Lakers victory.

OK. They don't have to get that familiar. But the Mavs and the Lakers are two of the best teams in basketball and seem locked into second and third place – or third and second place, one way or the other – in the West. That would sent each franchise on a path to finally oppose one another … and after this decade-plus of the Mavs trying to stop LA with the invention of "Hack-a-Shaq,'' of the acquisition of Raef LaFrentz as an LA-specific weapon, of bitching about the LA pickup of Pau Gasol, of Cuban calling LA coach Phil Jackson a "bucket boy'' and a "boy toy'' and any other sort of "boy'' he could think of, of Kobe taunts and Artest taunts and the distance between the two outstanding franchises that has resulted in five NBA titles in the last 11 years for LA and one almost-title for Dallas …

Maybe all the work and all the talk and all the anticipation is about to occur.

"We're right there with them,'' said Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki, an optimistic take from a night when the Mavs failed to take advantage of, well, anything.

LA was able to get this done with the always-dramatic Kobe Bryant missing some minutes when he limped theatrically to the bench with a bum ankle in the third – and missing 14 of his 20 shots.

"Scared shitless,'' is how Kobe described his reaction to the injury, which he momentarily thought had finished his season.

And then he returned to the court. Dramatically.

Bryant is the axis of the Lakers planet. So when he makes a show of returning to the floor in Miami after a Thursday loss (he could've done his work on a private practice court but instead sought out the stage) or when he misses the Lakers' Friday practice in Dallas for no especially grand reason, it's simply part of the award-winning Hollywood soap opera that is the Lakers.

Meanwhile, the Mavs' successes here are relative. Nowitzki outdid fellow MVP perennial Bryant in scoring, 25 to 16 – but Dirk was involved in a series of miscues in the game's final minutes. The Mavs opened the final quarter trailing by eight and then rushed to make it a rather improbable two-point game with 24 seconds left, but LA closed it out by preventing Dallas meaningful offensive looks. Jason Terry scored 13 points, but was 6-of-16 shooting and was one of just three Mavs who scored more than two baskets.

The other was Shawn Marion (a season-high 25 points, with 12 boards), maybe the only Mav who seemed fully up to this challenge. The Matrix was every bit as good as any Laker supporting cast member. … and that's saying something, as LA's bigs were largely unstoppable. Andrew Bynum earned all sorts of interior space that netted him 22 points and 15 rebounds. Pau Gasol (18 points) rendered Tyson Chandler six rebounds, four points and four fouls) invisible. Dallas' starting backcourt of Jason Kidd and Roddy Beaubois combined to shoot 3-of-12 – and Roddy B's only basket was a garbage-time uncontested layup.

"It's a tough loss,'' Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "Obviously, it's a game that had meaning.''

So the magnitude wasn't lost on anyone (including a record crowd at the AAC for a regular-season game) … but the game was lost by so many Mavericks who did not perform at the accustomed level – the level that puts Dallas in terrific position as the season speeds into the stretch run.

That terrific position, however, is now almost matched by the Lakers, who are at 47-20 (9-1 since the All-Star Break) and just a tick behind Dallas, which is 47-19. If the Mavs end the year with a better total record, they will be the No. 2 seed in the West and have homecourt edge in a best-of-seven playoff series over LA should the two clubs advance beyond the first round.

"All of this is preparation,'' Terry said. "Preparing for the road ahead.''

Maybe then, after one more tiebreaking regular-season meeting on March 31 in LA (the clubs have split their two games), the anticipated playoff showdown can then be realized. Maybe then the Mavs – who'd won two straight over LA before Saturday – can prove that their recent struggles (three losses in five games and in-house debates about whether the team is "soft'') are radar-screen blips. And maybe then, the Lakers and Mavs can finally meet.

For something more than ice cream.

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