Carroll's Keys: Mavericks-Lakers

By John Carroll | Scouts Inc.

Sunday’s game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers is not only a rematch of last year's Western Conference semifinals, but could be a preview of a first-round matchup in this year’s playoffs. The Mavs are currently 34-26 and holding on to sixth place in the West. They have six games remaining in the regular season and any stumbles along the way could put them in peril of not making the playoffs.

The Lakers are up 3-0 versus the Mavericks this season and they are looking to sweep the season series with a win on Sunday. Kobe Bryant has sat out four consecutive games for the Lakers with a shin injury, but there's an outside chance he could be available for the Dallas game. The Lakers are currently 38-22 and have won three games in a row without Bryant. The Lakers have been 61-37 without Kobe over his entire career in Los Angeles, but they have no chance of winning a playoff series with this year’s team if he is not on the court at 100 percent.

Key Injury: Bryant is day to day with a shin injury.

Key Problems: Lakers and Mavericks

The Lakers and Mavericks have both struggled through a very unusual season. The Mavs won an NBA championship, but lost four players via free agency. The Lakers lost their Hall of Fame coach as well as Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher.

The Lakers decided to go outside their organization to replace Phil Jackson. In Mike Brown's first stint as a head coach he helped develop the Cleveland Cavaliers into one of the top defensive teams in the NBA. But when the Cavs faced the superior defensive teams in the playoffs, their offense appeared stagnant and lacked creativity.

The biggest problem that Brown faces as head coach of the Lakers is Bryant. Brown struggled to gain the trust and respect of LeBron James in Cleveland. In Los Angeles, Brown will continue to struggle to get control of Kobe and keep him being team-oriented. Kobe has his own identity issues, and he is constantly trying to prove he is the greatest player in the NBA.

The Lakers are ordinary this season. Their half-court offense is average. Their transition game is nonexistent. Their team speed and athleticism are poor except for Ramon Sessions. Their rebounding is tremendous but their team defense just OK. They have three star players in Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, but their surrounding pieces and bench are weak. This has been a transition season for the Lakers but that is not a word that resonates well in Los Angeles. It will be interesting to see how far they can go in this year's playoffs with this lineup and all they have had to deal with this season.

The Mavericks have had their own set of problems, but they had to know by not re-signing Tyson Chandler, JJ Barea, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson that they were headed down this path. The Mavericks' long-term goal has been to clear cap space for the summers of 2012 and 2013.

They have had their eye on adding Deron Williams and Dwight Howard to their team. In order to reach their long-term goals, the Mavs have suffered this season. The lack of Chandler has hurt them both on defense and offense. His fundamental setting of screens and ability to finish around the rim are missing this season. The lack of punch off the bench without Barea is obvious. The toughness of Stevenson is lacking. The Mavericks are limping into the playoffs. They put too much pressure on Dirk Nowitzki to deliver, they do not have any players who can create off the dribble, and the Lamar Odom experiment was a complete failure.

Key Decision: How does Dallas defend Kobe?

Look for Kobe Bryant to play on Sunday, though Brown says he is most likely out. He has been out all week, but with a game on national television versus the Mavericks I would suspect we will see him back in the lineup.

The question then is how will the Mavericks play Bryant? The Mavericks held Bryant to 23.5 points per game and .458 shooting in last year's Western Conference semifinals. And they seem to be utilizing a defensive system to hinder his scoring this season also.

Bryant, who is averaging 28.1 points per game and shooting .430 from the field this season, has been held under his numbers versus Dallas. He has scored only 19.7 points per game and shot only .400 in their three matchups this season. Dallas utilizes both Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd to guard him one-on-one. In addition Mavs coach Rick Carlisle will bring double-teams and also utilize a 2-3 zone to eliminate Kobe’s isolations. Look for Carlisle to implement all of these defensive strategies if Kobe plays on Sunday.

Key Stat: Transition Baskets

The Lakers do not score easy baskets. They average only 9.4 points per game on the fast break, which ranks 29th in the NBA.

The Lakers are a team constructed of three star players: Bryant, Gasol and Bynum. With Bryant and Gasol in their 30s and Bynum with knees of an old man, this team is built to be a half-court team. Even though they are a decent defensive team and a great defensive rebounding team, the Lakers are not a fast-breaking team.

This puts incredible pressure on their half-court offense. They are still not comfortable offensively with Brown’s offensive sets and change in offensive philosophy. In the playoffs, when teams lock in on their opponents' set plays and scoring drops off, it is vitally important to get easy baskets. Somehow the Lakers must find some easy buckets off steals, fast breaks and offensive rebounds. Ramon Sessions can be the one player who can push the ball in transition and with his speed and athleticism create some more easy scoring opportunities for this team.

Key Deficiency: Lakers Bench

Can the Lakers win without any support from their bench? Their bench is currently ranked 28th in the NBA with a point differential of minus-7.7. The Lakers get very little production from Steve Blake, Andrew Goudelock, Matt Barnes, Troy Murphy or Jordan Hill. Those five players combine for an average of 25 points per game.

The Lakers do not have one player off their bench who is capable of scoring in double figures. When assessing their chances of winning in the playoffs, one must look at their lack of bench and wonder if they have any chance of winning more than one playoff series.

If the standings were to stay as they are today, the Lakers would face the Mavs or possibly the Spurs in the second round. The Lakers would have all types of problems with San Antonio. The Spurs have the No. 1 bench in the NBA with a plus-12.8 differential and would be a very difficult team to defeat in a seven-game series. The Lakers must make some shrewd moves in the offseason to not only improve their starting lineup but also their bench.