Two weeks ago, the Dallas Mavericks were jostling with the San Antonio Spurs for the top seed in the Western Conference, losing only five times in 29 games with Dirk Nowitzki leading many early season MVP ballots.
But on Dec. 28 at Oklahoma City, the German power forward who arguably keeps Pau Gasol from being called the best European player in the NBA sprained his knee after landing awkwardly on a jumper. Three games later, the team’s next-best shot creator, Caron Butler, ruptured the patellar tendon of his right knee. In related news, the Mavericks have lost 9-of-11 games, including their last six in a row, while struggling considerably to find their early season rhythm.
And who can blame ‘em, as on top of the Nowitzki/Butler injuries, defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler — whom none other than Phil Jackson volunteered as an All-Star candidate — has missed the last two games with the flu.
The Lakers have had their own injury issues, most notably in the form of Andrew Bynum missing the team’s first 24 games of the season, which took its toll on the loss column and on the legs of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Sure enough, since Bynum’s return, the Purple and Gold have won 10-of-12 games. Also hurt are Theo Ratliff (knee soreness), who hasn’t played since early November, and Matt Barnes (arthroscopic knee surgery), expected to miss another seven weeks or so after tearing meniscus.
In stark contrast, the Spurs have stayed healthier than any team in the NBA, missing nary a game to injury while Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Co. roll through the season, establishing a league-best mark of 35-6 (.854), good for a 4.5-game lead on the Lakers (31-12, .721) and now, suddenly, 8.5-game edge over the Mavericks (26-14, .650).
It’s the latter two teams that will meet for the first time this season on Wednesday evening in Dallas. Nowitzki is back, fresh off a 32-point performance in Detroit, and Chandler’s expected to play opposite Bynum, while Barnes and Butler will be in street clothes.
The Lakers seem to be rounding, if deliberately, into form, while whether or not the Mavericks can reclaim some of their early-season rhythm remains to be seen. This even if the Lakers expect Mark Cuban’s squad to play with fervor, as is always the case when Kobe Bryant brings his team to Texas.