On Sunday the Lakers looked to pull within two and a half games of the Houston Rockets, who currently possess the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. Their task would not be easy however, as they faced Dirk Nowitzki and his surging Mavericks, winners of four of their last five. The game would certainly have a playoff atmosphere and intensity level, as the Mavericks were also struggling to pull into the playoff picture.
Which Kobe Bryant will we see? In the past month Kobe has been scoring fewer points and racking up more assists as this seems to be the “winning formula”. On Friday night, however, a glimpse of the old Kobe was seen in his 40-point outing in the win over the Blazers. Kobe’s decision making early in the game could mean the difference between a strong start and a win or a lackadaisical start leading to a loss.
The Lakers came out with Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, and Dwight Howard. Dwight Howard started the game strong with an easy dunk while the Lakers looked to contain the Mavericks defensively. The first basket of the game came to the player who has hurt the Lakers most—Darren Collison. The long and athletic Earl Clark was given the task of guarding Dirk. Kobe made his first shot of the game with a deep three pointer off of a pass from Dwight. Howard continued to look like his old self, jumping up high for several early rebounds while Kobe looked aggressive early. He also drew two early fouls on Bernard James, the starting center for the Mavericks.
The Lakers began to struggle offensively as Dwight picked up his second early foul forcing Antawn Jamison to enter the game. The Lakers had been losing their offensive patience in the last few minutes. Kobe gave the Lakers their lead back with an incredibly deep three pointer followed with an athletic layup by Earl Clark. Bryant was clearly in attack mode early. The Mavericks began to capitalize on plays in the paint as the Lakers clearly missed the presence of Dwight Howard. Three straight unanswered baskets from the Mavericks forced a Mike D’Antoni timeout. With strong efforts in the paint, the two teams battled back and forth.
At the end of the quarter, the Lakers trailed 30-27.
After being killed in the paint defensively, the Lakers looked to have a stronger outing in the second quarter with Dwight back in the game. Howard’s presence was immediately felt as he altered several shots from the Mavericks. Three free throws from Jodie Meeks soon had the game tied at 30. The Lakers continued to be swamped by foul trouble as Earl Clark picked up another while guarding Dirk. The Lakers then regained the lead with five straight points from Meeks, who was quickly heating up. Steve Blake slowed the game down for L.A. and ran the offense through Dwight Howard, who set up his teammates for open shots.
L.A. had opened the quarter on an 11-4 run, forcing a timeout from Rick Carlisle. The Mavericks continued to struggle with outside shots as Dwight Howard prevented them from penetrating inside but Dirk pulled them out of their offensive slump. Offensively, Dwight’s presence was taking over the game by the time Steve Nash returned with seven minutes remaining. As Kobe remained on the bench after playing the entire first quarter, the Lakers were forced to play a small lineup. With five minutes to go when Kobe returned, Dwight Howard picked up his third foul, a worrisome sight for the Lakers. Kobe immediately hit his third deep three of the game and in doing so broke the 43-point tie. On the very next play, Kobe found Steve Nash for a wide open three-pointer and the Lakers had a six point lead. The Lakers, however, were desperately missing the shot blocking of Dwight Howard.
By halftime, the Lakers and Mavericks had played to a 54-point tie.
The most important factor in the game for the Lakers has been Dwight Howard’s foul trouble. While on the floor, Dallas has been unable to stop him, but the Lakers have dearly missed his shot blocking ability when he is on the bench. For the Mavericks, Elton Brand started the second half to guard Dwight Howard. The Lakers began the third quarter by allowing five quick Maverick points as Dallas was getting every loose ball. Kobe continued to shoot for the Lakers but any signs of ball movement had disintegrated. Dirk missed several shots for the Mavs and the Lakers scored eight straight points to regain the lead. Jumper after jumper, both teams battled back and forth in this see saw game. Back to back long shots from Nash gave the Lakers a five point lead of their own and triggered a Maverick timeout.
The Lakers came into the third quarter red hot offensively, as everyone was making shots. The Mavericks, however, had the same playoff desperation and continued to respond. After the timeout, the Lakers came out cold and missed four straight shots before yet another three from Nash for his eighth point of the period. With just under six minutes to go the Lakers substituted Antawn Jamison for Dwight Howard, and the Mavericks looked to attack the paint immediately. Two straight inside buckets had the Mavericks back within two as the Lakers immediately missed Howard. A three from Dirk capped a 7-0 Dallas run as the Mavericks regained the lead. The Lakers promptly called timeout and Dwight returned to the game. Out of the timeout, Kobe got two easy buckets and the Mavericks were once again forced to take outside shots. At the end of the quarter, the Lakers had a 79-75 lead.
After playing an excellent three quarters, both teams looked to finish the game on a strong note. The Lakers had found their range in the third quarter while Dirk continued his best game of the season. The key, once again, for the Lakers was the presence of Dwight Howard defensively. The Lakers began the fourth quarter with both Kobe and Nash on the bench but Dwight in. The offense was run through Howard, who scored the first points of the quarter at the free throw line. Vince Carter, meanwhile, was the biggest consistent threat for the Mavericks. With just under ten minutes to go, the Mavericks had tied the game at 80. Dwight Howard then picked up his fourth foul on an illegal screen as the Lakers were falling apart. The Mavericks then regained the lead on a three pointer from Jae Crowder.
After the Lakers gave up their lead, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant returned while Dwight Howard stayed in. A deep contested three from Kobe had the Lakers back up by one, as Kobe had 27 points. Vince Carter, however, responded for the 15th lead change before another Kobe fadeaway. The Mavericks scored again but Kobe hit yet another fadeaway as the teams traded blows. A dunk from Dirk gave the Mavericks a three point lead with six minutes to go as the Lakers looked to be losing their grip on this game. With two free throws with five minutes left, Dwight Howard tied the game at 90. With four minutes to go, D’Antoni reinserted Jamison into the lineup.
The Lakers regained the lead with more clutch free throws from Dwight. With three minutes left, the Mavericks had gone ice cold and Kobe took advantage with two free throws. The Lakers had scored seven straight points of their own to regain a four point lead before a tough shot from Vince Carter. Kobe answered with another clutch jumper of his own and his 35th point of the game but a three pointer from O. J. Mayo cut the Laker lead to one. The Lakers answered with a clutch bucket of their own when Steve Nash nailed a three. With 1:12 to go, Dallas had possession but trailed by four.
The lead was down to two after a Dirk layup with one minute to go. Kobe answered with a beautiful clutch bucket to push the lead to four before Dirk made a tough shot of his own. With 16.8 seconds remaining, World Peace made one of two free throws to make it a three point game. O.J. Mayo missed a desperation three and Kobe was at the line to seal the game with four seconds to go.
In the end, the Lakers managed to defeat the Mavericks 103-99, for their third straight win.