Lakers vs. Mavericks: Five things to watch, plus one larger issue

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lakers will be counting on Lamar Odom, among others, to keep Shawn Marion from doing this.

Five Items Of Note:

  • Lamar Odom, by and large, has outplayed Shawn Marion in numerous battles over the years, particularly while forcing The Matrix to guard him. Dallas' small forward is no slouch when it comes to slowing even elite scorers, but Odom's combination of length, size and southpaw action has consistently neutralized Marion's skills.

  • Of course, it's easy to wonder if Odom will neutralize himself. In recent victories over Golden State and Sacramento, Lamar rode out very quiet first halves before exploding in the third quarter. He'll tell you it's a matter of keeping with the game's flow and not forcing the action, but between the matchup and the Lakers' shorthanded state, it'd be a pretty big bonus if Odom made his presence felt right off the bat.

  • The Lakers' bench hasn't found a way to provide consistent production throughout the season, an aspect even more pronounced as Odom's taken an injured Ron Artest's place among the starting five. With Jason Terry, Josh Howard and Drew Gooden -- all capable of filling up a bucket-- coming off the Mavs' pine, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic will need to step it up to avoid getting lapped by a country mile.

  • The reserve guards' collective effort may be erratic, but not enough to get Derek Fisher any fourth quarter burn of late. Despite a rightful rep for coming up big in the crunch time clutch, Fish has been a bench fixture during closing quarters of the last three games. True, one was a blowout loss to Phoenix where even Kobe Bryant didn't play a large chunk of the fourth, but this development underscores a wicked slump Fish is currently enduring. He hasn't shot 50 percent from the field since December 20th, and Friday's win over Sacramento featured a massive struggle for him on both sides of the ball. With Kobe carrying an awfully big load these days, a little more help provided by his three-peat buddy would be nice.

  • Speaking of guards, Jose Juan Barea, a wee fella who looks about 14, the kind of player my Mom would find "adorable." She's just tickled pink whenever lil' guys like Earl Boykins and Nate Robinson run among the giant people. The Lakers would be wise not to view him in such patronizing fashion. He may be a human sight gag for the NBA, but he's also a water bug capable of scoring from all over the place. Don't let the innocent appearance fool you, whether mother or Laker defender.

  • The injury bug is a brutal nemesis for Mavs swingman Josh Howard, but when able to suit up, he's a dangerously versatile player capable of being the Mavs' X-Factor. Considering the Mavs beat the Lakers at Staples without him (in fairness, Pau Gasol was also out), Howard's participation is a reminder of how problematic his presence could be. Especially with Artest, the ideal guy to throw his way, on the shelf. Bear in mind, however, injuries have prevented Howard from playing in more than two back-to-back games, and both times, he played poorly in the second outing. The Mavs arrive in L.A. after a battle with Sacto last night, perhaps a wrinkle working in the Lakers' favor.


One Larger Issue:

Sunday night's scrap with the Mavericks can be seen as a bellwether for the Lakers. They've already lost to Dallas once on their home floor in a game that wasn't as competitive through the second half as the 14 point final margin might indicate. The Lakers have also lost to Houston, Utah, Phoenix, Denver, and Cleveland, all games that weren't particularly close. Take away three wins over the 18-15 Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Lakers haven't exactly distinguished themselves against the league's stronger squads.

It all feeds the common criticism that the purple and gold have run up their record on inferior competition aided by a home heavy schedule. Tonight marks the start of a January schedule where feasting on the weak and sick won't be an option. Tuesday, the Lakers get 20-14 Houston at home. Then it's off to Portland on Friday, where L.A. hasn't won since the Coolidge administration. As the month continues, there are back-to-backs in San Antonio and Dallas, a Finals rematch against Orlando, and an eight game road trip including three more back-to-backs and stops in Cleveland, Boston, and suddenly-not-crappy Memphis.

That the Lakers aren't playing championship caliber ball these days isn't exactly a state secret. Without a few doses of the cape-laden, my-other-pad-is-a-Fortress-of-Solitude Kobe Bryant, L.A.'s 26-6 record would look a little different. As a group, they've become discombobulated on both sides of the ball. Now they're in a place where they'll have to play better to keep winning. They'll tell you the endgame is April and beyond, and they're right. But I also believe the Lakers hear what people are saying and want to silence the doubters, meaning more tangible challenges are a positive thing. The process of re-establishing dominance can start Sunday night, but if they lose those questioning the Lakers will only have more ammunition.

And honestly, the media's tendency to panic and blow things out of proportions aside, I want to see the Lakers beat some good teams, too.