Cumberland Times-News

Basketball

May 5, 2011

Lakers head to Dallas with grip on title slipping

DALLAS — One big man is struggling, the other is spouting off about “trust issues.” Their enforcer got carried away at the end of the last game and is suspended from the next one.

Their mental edge is gone, and so is their home-court advantage. They’ve even lost the approval of one of their greatest icons.

Asked how to get them to snap out of it, their Zen master coach suggested “flogging them.” Then he laughed. Hey, Phil Jackson’s retiring in a few days or weeks, so he might as well crack wise.

Such melodrama is vintage Hollywood, but usually for the make-believe folks. Or the Clippers. Certainly not the realm of Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Yet early in their second-round series against the Dallas Mavericks, Bryant and the Lakers are in deep trouble, and they know it.

Los Angeles is down 0-2 going into Game 3 on Friday night. While three teams in NBA history have won a seven-game series after losing the first two at home, no team has rallied from an 0-3 deficit. That makes the next game pivotal in the Lakers’ quest for a third straight championship.

“Desperate, that’s a strong word,” Bryant said. “I think when you play desperate you don’t play your best basketball. What we need to do is relax, focus on what we’re doing wrong and the mistakes that we’re making. We have plenty to review and lock in on.”

Their problems start on defense.

Dirk Nowitzki is having his way with the Lakers no matter whether they try covering him with someone big or small. That happens with all teams. The surprise is that Los Angeles is struggling with everyone else, all the way down to speedy little backup point guard J.J. Barea.

Barea scooted all over the court in Game 2 on Wednesday night until the final minute, when Ron Artest swung his forearm and whacked Barea in the face. Artest was thrown out and the league told him Thursday that he can’t play in Game 3.

If the Lakers’ invincibility wasn’t already gone, that cheap shot made it clear how frustrated this team is.

Just look at the inside tandem of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Gasol is playing so poorly on both ends of the court that he was booed in the second half of Game 2, at least until many fans left early or lost interest. After the game, Bynum spiced things up by saying “all 13 of our guys have trust issues right now,” further describing those problems as “deeply rooted.”

Lakers great Magic Johnson is disgusted. On Wednesday night, he tweeted, “It’s going to be a tough climb to come back and I think their chances are slim.” On Thursday, he tweeted that Bynum should’ve kept his mouth shut.

All told, the Lakers look tired, mentally and physically. Maybe it’s the toll of reaching the finals each of the last three years.

This is nothing new, either. They’ve had several stretches this season when they’ve looked vulnerable, only to revert to their title-worthy form. Just last round, they lost the opener to the Hornets and were tied 2-2 in the series before Bryant pulled them through. What seemed like a jump-start to another title run is now looking like it might’ve been a last gasp.

“We don’t like being in this position,” point guard Derek Fisher said. “It’s not familiar, you know? But we are where we are, so we have to make sure we stay together as a group and figure this thing out. We’re trying to make history here, and that’s not easy. We have to be willing to be accountable, all of us.”

The Lakers can’t be counted out because they still have Bryant — and because they’re playing the Mavericks, a team that tends to blow games and series every postseason.

Dallas appeared headed toward another flop when it gave away a 23-point lead over the last 14 minutes of Game 4 in a first-round series against Portland. But the Mavs haven’t lost since, a streak of four wins, with the last three coming on the road.

The road wins are especially significant because Dallas had lost eight straight playoff road games, and 18 of 20. Such performances in Portland and in Los Angeles back up what players have been saying since training camp: These aren’t the same old Mavs.

But two games only counts as a good start toward changing Dallas’ reputation. And it’s not like the Mavericks played two perfect games. The Lakers would’ve won the opener if a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Bryant stayed in the cylinder instead of bouncing out.

“This series is far from over,” Nowitzki said. “I’ve been up 2-0 before and ended up losing the series. We’ve seen a lot of things happen in this league so we’ve got to stay focused, stay together and let our home crowd ride us and get another great win.”

The last time they played in Dallas, the Mavericks gave their best performance of the postseason, their bounceback game following the Game 4 collapse. The building should be even louder this time because of the higher stakes, and because it will be the Lakers’ first playoff visit in 23 years.

The Mavs already posted on YouTube an animated video that’s sure to get a rousing response when it’s played Friday night: “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Lakers Fans.”

It’s the continuation of a series that began with the Mavericks’ run to the NBA finals in 2006.

Odds are, the club’s video folks are already working on versions for the Thunder and Grizzlies. Just in case.

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