Few have questioned L.A.’s place as the team to beat in the Western Conference, particularly since the defending champion Lakers (43-14) have built a solid 5.5-game lead on second place Denver (37-19).
But after making a trade with Washington that netted Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson for Josh Howard, James Singleton and Drew Gooden, the Dallas Mavericks (36-21) have thrust themselves into the “Who’s second best in the West?” argument along with Denver and Utah (36-20).
Howard – who sadly tore his ACL on Monday night – was plagued by injuries for the past two years in Dallas, most notably a bad ankle that had limited his productivity on the wing for the Mavs, and Butler’s been a significant upgrade. Haywood, stepping right into a starting role at center in the absence of Erick Dampier (dislocated middle finger), has been arguably even better.
The Mavericks lost their first game after the trade in Oklahoma City, 99-86, as Butler struggled with his shot (4-of-16) and the Thunder won for the eighth straight time. But since then, Dallas has barely been threatened in a 4-0 spurt including victories over Phoenix (107-97), at Orlando (95-85), Miami (97-91) and Indiana (91-82).
Butler has been good for 14.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.4 steals while working to find his rhythm on offense (37 percent from the field), while Haywood has averaged 11.2 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.4 blocks on 55 percent shooting, highlighted by a 20-rebound effort against the Pacers. Stevenson has played only 28 total minutes, scoring seven points with four rebounds and two assists.
Over the All-Star break in Dallas, we actually had a chance to ask Mark Cuban if the trade was made in part to better match up with the Lakers. After all, Butler knows Kobe’s game more than most, and Haywood helps the Mavs deal with L.A.’s unmatched depth in the lane. Cuban basically declined to acknowledge the inquiry, saying that Dallas was simply trying to improve itself, but it’s hard to argue that the top team in the conference wasn’t at least in consideration when the deal was made.
The first matchup came on the season’s second game (Oct. 30) for each team, the Lakers coming off a celebratory Ring Night win over the Clippers and Dallas losing a shocker at home to Washington. From the tip, L.A. simply didn’t match the intensity of the out-to-prove-something visitors, and the Mavs coasted to a 94-80 victory that featured 21 points and 10 boards from Dirk Nowitzki. L.A. shot just 39.5 percent in the loss.
The Lakers got revenge in a big way on January 3 back at STAPLES Center, however, crushing the visitors in a 131-96 beat down that saw the Lakers jump out to a 30-13 lead after the first quarter and never look back. With the starters resting in the fourth quarter (among them Andrew Bynum, who sat down after going a perfect 8-of-8 from the field), Jordan Farmar pushed his point total to 24 to lead all scorers, connecting on 6-of-8 three-pointers off the bench.
Then, 10 days later, the Purple and Gold went to Dallas sans Pau Gasol (hamstring), and with Kobe Bryant unsure if he was even going to play due to back spasms that kept him out of the fourth quarter in San Antonio the previous night, and still pulled out a tough 100-95 victory by scoring the game’s final five points. The difference maker was a Bryant jumper that broke a 95-all tie with 28 seconds remaining. Bryant took only 11 shots in the game, making five, and added two rebounds and two assists as he labored around the court.
L.A. outshot Dallas 48.8 percent to 42.9 percent in that game and got double-doubles from three players, collectively lifting up Bryant: Andrew Bynum (21 points, 11 rebounds); Lamar Odom (18 points, 14 rebounds) and Ron Artest (16 points, 11 rebounds). Nowitzki, generally covered (effectively) by Gasol with some Odom on the side, scored 30 points for the Mavericks.
That brings us to Wednesday’s game at American Airlines Center, where a new Mavericks’ team awaits after getting to watch from home as L.A. exerted full effort in Memphis on Tuesday night before Bryant’s dagger three swished home a win with 4.3 seconds to play in a 99-98 victory.
So at 6 p.m. on Wednesday evening, Dallas will get their chance to show L.A. just how good they can be.
We’ll be watching.