Mavs get first crack at L.A. since trade

DALLAS -- Kobe Bryant speaks fluently in English, Spanish, Italian and hype.

Surely the latter is what Bryant was speaking when he suggested that the Dallas Mavericks' acquisition of Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood had put the Mavs on par with the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.


Butler, a former teammate and close friend of Bryant, said he takes the Mavs-killer at his word.

"Kobe wouldn't say anything that he wouldn't mean. He's one of those guys," said Butler, whose stay in Los Angeles was limited to the 2004-05 season before he was traded to Washington for Kwame Brown. "I have a great deal of respect for him. I'm like a little brother to him and he's like a big brother. That meant a lot, but I know when that day comes and we compete against him, he's going to try to bury us."

That day is here. The West's runaway leaders and their resident superstar, who made his return from left leg and ankle injuries Tuesday night at Memphis, visit the American Airlines Center on Wednesday for the last of four regular-season meetings.

This one is noteworthy on several fronts. The Mavs (36-21) are shooting for their third five-game win streak of the season and first in more than two months. They can knot the season series with the Lakers at 2-2. And most interesting, it's the first of the four meetings in which both teams enter the game with the meat of their respective lineups intact, with a couple of caveats.

Bryant remains on the mend, and he could be limited coming off Tuesday's game, his first since Feb. 5. Mavs center Erick Dampier, a key defender against the Lakers' huge front line, is out with a dislocated finger. Haywood's acquisition tempers that loss, although the Mavs would love to see how they function with both big bodies available.

The retooled Mavs, led by the re-energized Jason Kidd to a 4-1 record since the blockbuster trade, have had just one full practice to work in Butler and Haywood. Still, Butler called Wednesday's matchup a "meaningful" game.

It's safe to assume more meaningful for the recharged Mavs than the coasting Lakers, who won four of five without Bryant.

"Whether he meant it or not, he knows that we are a viable team right now, especially now that you bring these guys in," guard Jason Terry said of Bryant's comment. "It isn't going to matter until the playoffs, so we'll see what happens if we face them there."

Still, this game does hold psychological meaning for the Mavs, who had spent the six weeks prior to the trade playing .500 ball, pockmarked by porous defense and a stagnating offense.

In a wide-open Western Conference, where the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz -- and Oklahoma City Thunder? -- look to have the best shot at dethroning the Lakers, a Mavericks win Wednesday night would at least make for interesting conversation.

Those four teams will be jockeying for the Nos. 2 and 3 playoff seeds, coveted positions because they keep the Lakers away until the conference finals. The fourth seed, barring upsets, would run into the Lakers in the second round.

"We feel like we're better, for sure, you know," coach Rick Carlisle said. "And we're playing better, so we have to continue with that."

The Mavs like the way the trade helps them match up with L.A. The 6-foot-7, 228-pound Butler provides an edgier, more rugged defensive presence against Bryant than the Mavs previously had with Josh Howard. Pairing Butler with the lankier 6-7 Shawn Marion gives Dallas two capable defenders to throw at Bryant.

Down low, the 7-foot Haywood, a significant upgrade as a lane-clogger, shot-blocker and rebounder over anyone Carlisle had available to back up Dampier, is a considerable cog against the Lakers' big front line of Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.

Dallas, although playing without a backup center and with Eduardo Najera as the lone backup power forward, has seen a marked improvement defensively since the trade. The Mavs limped into the All-Star break having given up more than 100 points in eight consecutive games and at least 112 in five of them.

In the five games since the All-Star break, the Mavs are allowing 90.8 points and have held three of five opponents to under 43 percent shooting.

"This really has been proof that when you guard and just play hard and move the ball and share it, you're going to have a shot to play well and win some games," Carlisle said. "Defense is something that has to be a constant."

That's not hype if the Mavs are to be considered on par with the Lakers.

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.