Mavs face tall order against Lakers

DALLAS -- From the clip-and-save file: July 14, 2010, Dallas Mavericks president Donnie Nelson announces trade for center Tyson Chandler.

"When we do something, all of our sights are set on Los Angeles," Nelson said. "If you're going against Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the post, you need athletic big guys that can defend in the low post."

It's been 23 years since the Mavs and Los Angeles Lakers last tangled in a playoff series. James Donaldson manned the paint as Chandler attended kindergarten; Phil Jackson was still a year removed from coaching Michael Jordan; and Mark Cuban abused refs from the Reunion Arena nosebleeds.

Yet as if on Nelson's cue, two decades and change later, the Mavs and Lakers begin a best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series Monday night at Staples Center. And it is Chandler, acquired to battle the biggest front line in the NBA in such a showdown, who is center stage as he and the Mavs converge at a most intriguing intersection.

A free-agent-to-be, the 7-foot-1 emotional leader and defensive anchor has spent the season redefining his career after two wasted seasons hobbled by injury. The Mavs, with their core of aging veterans surrounding Dirk Nowitzki, are desperately hoping to redefine the franchise's bruised playoff image of the last half-decade.

Standing in the way is, of course, the five-time champ, Kobe Bryant. But completing the Lakers as the most feared matchup in the league is the most skilled pair of front-line 7-footers in the league in Gasol and Bynum.

"I think we actually match up pretty well with them," Nowitzki said. "When they're at their best is when Bynum and Gasol, and then [Lamar] Odom coming off the bench, really dominate the paint. It's going to be a big series for us in the paint with [Brendan] Haywood and Chandler obviously battling."

Yes, Nowitzki is equipped with his own set of 7-footers. No one will argue his are of equal caliber, but the Mavs' towers don't need to be. Chandler, the native son who grew up in San Bernardino, Calif., and starred at Dominguez High in Compton, and Haywood, the backup who could start on most other teams, know their assignment.

"Our job is to play defense and finish when we get the ball," Chandler said after Thursday's series-clinching win over the Portland Trail Blazers. "We have a tough matchup ahead of us with those big guys down in L.A., and our job is to slow those guys down and give our team an opportunity to win."

Against the Blazers, the Mavs benefited from a fresh 7-footer to always blanket Portland's only paint threat, LaMarcus Aldridge. Chandler's length and quickness, combined with Haywood's size and bulk, grinded on Aldridge as the series progressed.

Yet Chandler's first playoff series with the Mavs will go down as only mediocre. Fouls stymied him, and he didn't emerge as an all-around force until Game 5.

This time around, Game 5 will be too late. The Lakers are a different beast.

"Their size," said forward Shawn Marion without hesitation. "Bynum is a handful for us, and Gasol, and Lamar. We have to make sure we put pressure on the guys and make it hard for them."

Those guys have certainly made it hard for the Mavs. Consider that Bynum requires the attention of Chandler and/or Haywood at all times. It forces Nowitzki to contend with Gasol and at times even the versatile, 6-10 Odom. Against Portland, Nowitzki defended 37-year-old, light-scoring center Marcus Camby. He averaged 3.5 points in 27.8 minutes a game in the series.

Bynum, Gasol and Odom brutalized the Mavs' front line during the regular season, particularly the last two meetings -- a decisive Lakers win in Dallas on March 12, despite the 96-91 final, and a 110-82 romp in L.A. two weeks later. In the latter, the Mavs lost their cool and unraveled.

The Lakers' front-line production in three games against Dallas has been off the charts. Bynum averaged 16.7 points and 11.7 rebounds. He shot 70.4 percent, his best percentage against any opponent he played more than once. Gasol put up 20.3 points and shot 54.5 percent. And Odom averaged 14.7 points on 51.4 percent shooting.

That's 51 highly efficient points per game, even before thinking about Bryant.

Bryant is an entirely different issue, as matchups are tough all over. If Marion must guard the rock-like Ron Artest, DeShawn Stevenson must start on Bryant. But what about the 35 minutes a game Stevenson sits on the bench? The matchups don't get friendlier with the small-ish Jason Terry, J.J. Barea and potentially Rodrigue Beaubois coming off the bench.

So, where does Dallas hold an edge? Perhaps it's in the pressure department. That sounds strange considering the Lakers are back-to-back champs while the Mavs have spent the last five seasons battling mental demons.

However, Thursday night's win was something of an exorcism, seemingly allowing the Mavs a pressure-free existence entering the series. If they weren't supposed to beat the Blazers, who in their right mind expects them to trump the champs?

"We're just happy to be playing," said Jason Kidd, half tongue-in-cheek. "Nobody thought we were going to get out of the first round, so there's no pressure. We respect what they've done the last few seasons but we've got to challenge them."

Bryant isn't getting younger and the aches and pains are mounting in his 15th season. He enters the series with a gimpy left ankle that no one really knows just how badly is sprained -- although the New Orleans Hornets might have their doubts.

Other issues are at work, too. L.A. just hasn't played convincingly in its quest for a three-peat, which Bryant accomplished once with Shaquille O'Neal and dearly wants to do again.

Jackson, who coached Jordan to multiple three-peats, continues to suggest this will be his final run in Tinseltown. Pressure? Without question.

Yet at the heart of this series will be a battle in the paint and how a tall, fiery leader acquired for this very moment will perform.

"We've got a big test ahead of us," Chandler said. "Those are the true champs over there. Until somebody knocks them off, they're going to be that."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.