Mavericks-Lakers Preview

Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki were born just two months apart in

1978, and they’ve both been NBA superstars for over a decade.

They’ve won one league MVP award apiece, and Bryant has only a

slight edge in career scoring averages and All-Star

appearances.

Nobody would ever compare Nowitzki with Bryant in the metrics

that matter most, however. In championships, in big-game

performances, Dirk just isn’t in Kobe’s league.

Yet after Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks thoroughly outplayed

Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers down the stretch of their 96-94

comeback victory in their second-round series opener, Nowitzki’s

teammates think this might be the season their German 7-footer

erases their mutual postseason reputation – although he’ll have to

damage Bryant’s invincible aura to do it.

”He always wants the ball down the stretch, and he always finds

a way to get it done,” said Dallas guard Jason Kidd, whose veteran

defensive savvy also caused problems for Bryant. ”He likes that

stage. You don’t find a lot of guys who like that stage. Kobe is

one of them, but (Nowitzki) has done a lot of work to get there

with him. He and Kobe are the two best players on the floor, and he

found a way to get it done last night.”

Game 2 is Wednesday night at Staples Center.

Although Bryant is widely perceived to be the NBA’s best

late-game scorer after a 15-year career filled with clutch play,

some statistics show Dirk is a better closer than Kobe, including

Nowitzki’s superior shooting percentage on last-minute shots in

tight games. Bryant has missed crucial shots in several

buzzer-beating situations over the past few postseasons, including

his miss off the back rim to end Game 1.

Nowitzki scored 11 points in the fourth quarter Monday night

during the Mavericks’ first-ever playoff win in Los Angeles,

including four in the final 40 seconds. With Staples Center

collectively screaming in his ear with 19.5 seconds to play,

Nowitzki coolly made two free throws to give Dallas its first lead

of the second half.

”I’ve basically seen it all in this league,” Nowitzki said

after the Mavericks’ workout at the Los Angeles Clippers’ training

complex. ”It’s my 13th year. I’ve got to be ready for anything. I

can adjust to just about anything, and the good thing is we’ve got

a lot of shooters on this team. We can do a lot of things.”

Bryant scored 21 of his 36 points in the second half, but he

couldn’t close out the Mavs. His bad pass was stolen by Jason Terry

with 20 seconds left, and he fumbled a handoff from Pau Gasol with

4 seconds to play before missing that catch-and-shoot

3-pointer.

Nowitzki was the cooler playoff customer, while Bryant made

crucial mistakes to cap the Lakers’ collapse. No wonder Staples

Center fans appeared more confused than angry after their team blew

a 16-point lead to lose their second straight series opener.

”I’m not clutch,” Bryant deadpanned after sitting out another

practice at the Lakers’ training complex.

Nowitzki and Bryant have struck up a friendship during times

together at All-Star games or the Olympics, but Bryant doesn’t feel

a personal rivalry with Nowitzki. After all, they had never met in

the playoffs before Game 1.

”It’s different, because it’s not a personal challenge for me

to try to stop him or make things difficult for him,” Bryant said.

”It’s a little different in that regard.”

Their career postseason scoring averages are nearly identical,

around 25.5 points apiece, and they’re both among the highest in

NBA history. But Bryant has scored at least 30 points in 81 playoff

games, more than anybody except Michael Jordan, and his steady

brilliance has pushed the Lakers to seven NBA finals, including the

past three.

Nowitzki’s offensive talents are unique among 7-footers, but he

still hasn’t led the Mavericks to the franchise’s first title

during a decade of playoff appearances.

He got close in 2006, but Nowitzki shot poorly while the

Mavericks blew a 2-0 lead over the Miami Heat to lose the NBA

finals. A year later, Dallas was knocked out of the first round by

eighth-seeded Golden State, and Nowitzki went 2 for 13 in the

Warriors’ clinching victory after a horrific series effort, forcing

him into the bittersweet spectacle of accepting his only NBA MVP

award after the Mavericks had been eliminated.

Dallas had won just one round in the previous four postseasons

combined, even with Nowitzki averaging more than 26 points per game

over the past three years, before knocking off Portland in the

first round this spring. The Trail Blazers set the stage for a

typical Mavs collapse by coming back from a 23-point deficit in

Game 4 to even the series – but Dallas responded with two

impressive closeout wins.

”We’re mentally tougher than we have been,” Nowitzki said.

”It showed after the meltdown in Portland, coming back and winning

two games when everybody said we were dead. We’re a lot of veteran

guys who have been around a lot in this league.”

After Nowitzki’s 28-point, 14-rebound performance in Game 1, the

Lakers claimed they aren’t planning a new defensive approach.

Gasol, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest will share defensive duties, but

Los Angeles realizes it must improve its rotation to prevent

Nowitzki’s teammates from spreading the floor for open shots.

The Lakers appeared thoroughly unperturbed by their third loss

in seven postseason games this spring, even after blowing a

16-point lead. Unlike the Mavs, they have a large memory bank

filled with postseason resilience to draw upon when things go

wrong.

”We’re playing against one of the best teams in the NBA, and

there’s no anticipation of being able to get up to a certain level

and be able to maintain a lead,” Lakers guard Derek Fisher said.

”We’ve accepted the fact that it won’t be perfect. We’re going to

lose games.”