DALLAS -- The Lakers will go for the four-game sweep of the Dallas Mavericks on April 15 in Los Angeles.
The visitors snapped an overall two-game skid and made it three straight against the Mavericks on Wednesday night with a 109-93 thumping, outscoring Dallas 82-64 in the final three quarters while shooting nearly 60 percent in the game on the Mavs' home floor.
Cause for concern? Not entirely. Not with three key players, including Kobe Bryant-stopper Shawn Marion, sitting this one out. Mavs owner Mark Cuban didn't get all giddy over Dallas' last two wins against San Antonio and Denver, as impressive as they might have seemed, just as he didn't flinch at the 2-7 start after the All-Star break.
"You can't get all excited when you win and then say it doesn't count when you lose," Cuban said prior to the game when the Mavs' four-game win streak was still intact. "I said if you give us some rest, things will be different, and we got some rest. We got to make the playoffs, but that's all I really care about.
"I don't care what seed we are. I mean, I'd like to have home court just because we make more money, but beyond that, from a basketball perspective, I don't care."
The Mavs dropped back to the sixth seed in the Western Conference. They're 2.5 games behind the third-place Lakers and two games ahead of the ninth-place Utah Jazz, so anything and everything's in play at this point, particularly considering the level of difficulty of the final 18 games and the Mavs' fickle health situation.
During Wednesday's game, there was no Marion to pressure Kobe, no Brendan Haywood to lean on Andrew Bynum and no Delonte West to help out on impressive Lakers newcomer Ramon Sessions. So this will be a different Mavs team that tries to salvage one against L.A. next month, when the season will be reduced to six games over 12 days.
The Lakers have been at full strength in their two games in Dallas over the last month, but what they have managed versus the Mavs should be cause for alarm. If these two teams happen to maintain their current seedings, Dallas will open the first round on April 28 at Staples Center.
Without the 263-pound Haywood on Wednesday, the Mavs opted to double-team the 7-foot, 285-pound nimble load that is Bynum. It didn't work because he made the proper pass out, collecting three assists, and when he did find room to operate, he made four of his five shots against lankier centers Ian Mahinmi and Brandan Wright.
The Lakers' other 7-footer, Pau Gasol, so passive during the Mavs' playoff sweep, has turned unstoppable in the regular season. He had 27 points on 13-of-16 shooting, giving him 59 points on 60 percent shooting with 24 rebounds in the three games versus the Mavs.
As for the Mavs' other big guy, 6-10 Lamar Odom, he looked lost once more against his former teammates. In 24 minutes, he collected one point, one assist and one rebound, and he was hesitant to finish a couple of penetrations, dishing off instead.
"As a shooter, as a player, if you get a little hesitant, it's over," Nowitzki said when asked about Odom. "Once you start thinking in this game, that's tough."
What are the Mavs left to do as they desperately try to jump-start Odom's game two-thirds into the season?
"We're just hoping," Nowitzki said.
The Lakers' bigs are a big matchup problem, with or without Haywood. L.A. is the one team in the West, possibly along with Memphis, that could make the Mavs wish they still had Tyson Chandler anchoring things with Haywood as the helping hand.
"Why are we talking about Tyson?" Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said.
Good point, coach. Chandler isn't walking through that door.
"We need our big boys," said Nowitzki, who had 26 points on 10-of-24 shooting and had his hands full defensively with Gasol. "We've been getting away with playing some smaller lineups, but they have a lineup with Artest [Metta World Peace] at the 3 -- he could probably play 4 on a lot of teams. Then they've got the two 7-foot-1, 7-foot-2 guys; we need our big boys for that lineup with Vince [Carter] at the 2, who is a very big 2, with Trix [Marion] at the 3. That's a team where you don't get away with playing a smaller lineup."
And then there's Sessions, a journeyman wearing his fourth NBA uniform in his fifth season who could be a game-changer for Kobe Bryant and the crew. Sessions replaces Derek Fisher as the Lakers' main minute man at point guard. Of course, Dallas was sans Marion, but Bryant doubled his season scoring average against the Mavs with 30 points.
"If he's going to go 7-for-8 and hit 3-of-4 on 3s, then it's going to change their team a lot," said Carlisle, rattling off Sessions' stats that culminated with 17 points and nine assists in his fourth game with the Lakers. "I'm a big [Derek] Fisher fan, believe me. I've seen him have a lot of great games and hit a lot of big shots. Sessions is going to help them in a different kind of way. It's pretty clear."
And so a team that gives the Mavs fits at the 2, 4 and 5 now employs a tough cover at the 1. Sessions turned Wednesday's game from an eight-point Mavs lead in the first quarter to a 13-point Lakers lead at halftime with 12 points, seven assists and four rebounds in 17 first-half minutes.
"They're a very, very good team, there's no doubt about that," Carlisle said.
"Right now we've got to move on from [Wednesday] and we've got to get ready for the next two, and we've got to work on our health."
Marion is expected back Friday against the Spurs. Haywood could return a few games after that, and West perhaps a few games after that.
And when April 15 rolls around, a Sunday afternoon game in L.A. might just give everyone a preview of what would be a very interesting first-round matchup.