Kiki’s keys to the game: Lakers vs. Mavericks

Trade rumors are part of life in the NBA. General managers talk about players all the time. Writers write about possible deals. But 99 percent of those conversations don’t lead to anything. Players should just try to ignore it.

Of course, that’s easy for me to say now. When I was a player, especially early in my career, it bothered me when I heard I might be traded. You take it personally, and it’s a distraction.

So I understand why the Los Angeles Lakers are getting frustrated about all the trade rumors swirling around the team these days, especially involving Pau Gasol. But there’s one good way to quiet that talk for a while: Win games.

The Lakers are doing a decent job of that. They’re 19-13 and hanging around in the Western Conference race. But expectations for the team are always extremely high. Nothing but a championship will satisfy its loyal fans. So, naturally, people are going to talk about what the Lakers need to do to improve. And if you’re Mitch Kupchak, of course you’re going to listen when other GMs give you a call. 

It’s his job.

I don’t think Kupchak is actively shopping Gasol. But he has to look for ways to improve the team. The Lakers have needs; there’s no question about it. But it would take a great offer for the Lakers to part with one of the most skilled big men in the league.

Anyway, if the players don’t want to hear about it, they can prove something in the next few nights when they face the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder in back-to-back road games. Going into the All-Star break this weekend, these games are important.

The Lakers are 5-11 on the road, which makes it hard to take them too seriously as contenders right now. But if they can start beating elite teams on the road, it would do wonders for their confidence and their perception around the league. One thing’s for sure: It won’t be easy.

The Mavericks, who host the Lakers on Wednesday night, started the season with a little bit of a championship hangover, but they’re a very good basketball team right now. Dirk Nowitzki took a week off to get his legs back, and it helped him. He’s playing like Dirk Nowitzki again. The guy is virtually unguardable.

Jason Kidd can still pass. Jason Terry can still score. Shawn Marion is still a very good defender. And their team defense hasn’t slipped much, even though the Mavs lost their anchor, Tyson Chandler, in the offseason. Brendan Haywood has done a nice job inside, and Nowitzki just got his 1,000th career block. That probably surprises people; he’s a better defender than you think.

Dallas swept the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals last year and still matches up well. The Mavs no longer have Chandler or J.J. Barea, who gave the Lakers fits in that series. But Roddy Beaubois is the kind of quick point guard who always gives LA trouble. He’s part of a second unit that gives Dallas a big advantage.

The Lakers still have the lowest-scoring bench in the league, though Andrew Goudelock is giving them an offensive boost at times. But Dallas comes off the bench with Terry, Beaubois, Ian Mahinmi, Vince Carter (or Delonte West if both are healthy) and Lamar Odom, each of whom averages from 6.5 to 14.7 points per game.

Lakers fans may remember Odom as the league’s Sixth Man of the Year last season. He hasn’t been the same player since the Lakers dealt him to Dallas following the nixed trade that would have sent Odom to New Orleans. Odom definitely took all of that personally, and he has had a hard time with it. But I think he’s been playing a little better lately. I’m sure the Lakers wish they still had him.

The Lakers have a chance because they have the two big guys inside, Andrew Bynum and Gasol. But the main reason they can beat anyone on any given night is Kobe Bryant. He’s playing at such a high level. Even now, he’s, arguably, the best player in the league. I talked to Kupchak recently and he said if a game is remotely close and you have Kobe Bryant on your team, you like your chances.

Kobe also seems to get up for guys like Carter, to whom he’s been compared throughout his career. Grant Hill is another guy like that and Kobe always plays his best against the Suns.

But if Kobe has to play a lot of minutes Wednesday night, how much will he have left Thursday?

If the Lakers come into Oklahoma City tired, it won’t be pretty. The Thunder are 13-1 at home and they’re young, deep, big and athletic. They’ve a very, very, very good team. And it starts with, arguably, the best tandem in the NBA.

Have you seen what Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have done lately? On Sunday against the Nuggets, Durant scored 51 points and Westbrook had 40 in an overtime win. (That had not been done since guys by the names of Kiki Vandeweghe and Alex English had 51 and 47, respectively, for the Nuggets against the Pistons in 1983.) The next night, Durant and Westbrook each scored 31 in a victory over the Hornets. For the season, they’re combining for 51 points per game. That’s impressive.

People gave Westbrook grief last year in the playoffs for not passing enough. But while he’s become much more of a point guard and a much better player, he hasn’t changed his basic mentality. And I don’t think he ever will. He’s just such a competitor, and he’s always on the attack. It’s his nature. His teammates respect that and love him for it.

Even fast point guards can’t stay in front of Westbrook. Durant’s even harder to guard. He’s 6-foot-11 and has long arms, so he can shoot over small guys. But he can take apart big guys when they try to guard him on the perimeter. He’s as unguardable as Nowitzki, and he keeps getting better.

Two years ago, when the Lakers were on the way to a second straight title, they had a tough six-game series with the Thunder in the first round. Durant and Westbrook were both 21. James Harden and Serge Ibaka were 20-year-old rookies. Well, all of those guys have grown up. Durant’s stronger now. Ron Artest was able to muscle him back then; I don’t think he can do that anymore. Kobe was able to defend Westbrook at the end of games, but can he do that now?

Like I said, it’s not going to be easy. Harden’s a guy who can get you 25 any night, and Ibaka is leading the league in blocks. The Thunder also have an excellent bench. Plus, their trade for Kendrick Perkins helps them match up with bigger teams such as the Lakers.

Winning one or both of these games won’t solve all of LA’s problems. It won’t end the trade rumors. But maybe it will make the trade offers better.