LOS ANGELES -- It is Hollywood, remember, and so there is always another script. For the Dallas Mavericks, there is always a new way to lose in L.A. to the Lakers.
The Mavericks always find it, too.
The most distressing notion dancing in the Mavs' subconsciousness, as they careen toward a first-round playoff encounter with the last team they want to see early, is that it doesn't seem to matter what they do here. It was difficult for them to believe otherwise late Tuesday night, after their defensive game plan worked as well as it ever has. Even their year-old grand plan finally worked.
"I really don't know if we do," Mavericks guard Nick Van Exel said. "I haven't been here long enough. I've only been here for a few of these."
Of course, what Van Exel has seen just this season explains why he lowered his head into his huge hands for an escape after addressing reporters. What happened Tuesday night can't compare to that Friday night in December when the Mavs punted away a 27-point lead to start the fourth quarter, but the rematch was unforgettable in its own right, since no other team in memory has experienced a loss like it. Not even Dallas, now 0-25 here dating to 1990.
The Mavericks swarmed Shaq with double-, triple- and quadruple-teams and held him to 14 points. They tried to chase Kobe out of his comfort zone, working feverishly to nudge him away from his haven at the right elbow, and held Bryant to 14 points as well.
Raef LaFrentz, meanwhile, scored a season-high 26 points to Shaq and Kobe's 28.
This was the LaFrentz they've longed for in Dallas, the prototypical game to illustrate why they wanted him. When LaFrentz arrived with Van Exel from Denver last February, the Mavericks made the swap believing that the prospect of two mobile 7-footers who can make 3-pointers is the best fallback option to the reality that they can't trade for someone who can guard Shaq.
When the teams met in Dallas five days ago, LaFrentz was a no-show, fouling out with a measly seven points and four boards. Here he popped out for six threes, repeatedly exposing O'Neal's reluctance to follow big guys out to the perimeter. LaFrentz was so deadly that, eventually, the Lakers had to take Horry off Nowitzki -- and maybe no defender in the league hounds the German like Horry -- and switch him onto the lefty.
LaFrentz also joined in on the five-man platoon that kept Shaq out of double figures until the fourth quarter. Shaq helped some, looking much more lethargic than he did in Dallas last Thursday, but LaFrentz combined with Shawn Bradley, Evan Eschmeyer, Popeye Jones and double-team helper Eduardo Najera to legitimately nag their foremost nemesis.
Problem was, the Mavericks couldn't stop anyone else. Literally no one. Fox hit three triples in the first half. George missed only one shot all night and scored 11 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. Horry was a surprise starter -- in an indication, perhaps, that the Lakers might be getting serious -- and produced more than Shaq or Kobe with 17 points and 10 boards as well as the usual good coverage on Nowitzki. Fisher added 16 points and eight assists and Pargo came from nowhere to sink a couple of fourth-quarter jumpers when the Lakers started turning a 76-75 game into a rout.
"I watch this Laker team a lot," said Avery Johnson, the Mavericks' veteran voice and devoted student for his next life as an NBA head coach. "Those other guys, it seems like their eyes light up when they play us. They know they're going to get some wide-open looks because we have to double- and triple-team Shaq, and they know we're going to play some zone. When we show up, it's like the light bulb comes on."
Mavericks coach Don Nelson joked beforehand that his club is "dumber than a rock" because "we piss Shaq off." He noted that O'Neal draws motivation from the constant trash talk with Mavs owner Mark Cuban and Van Exel and that Bradley "gets him mad just by showing up." Nelson urged his team to "let sleeping dogs lie."
By night's end, the Mavericks were simply dumbfounded. They didn't have the injured Michael Finley, sure, but the league's most vaunted offense never ran smoothly, LaFrentz aside.
The fourth quarter was bad again, but the Mavericks really lost No. 25 in a row in the second quarter. Shaq picked up his third foul with 8:19 left in the half, and joined Bryant on the bench for more than three minutes, and the Mavericks lost their lead to a unit featuring Horry, George, Fisher, Pargo and Samaki Walker. With Shaq sitting out the bulk of the quarter, and Bryant reaching halftime with just four points, Dallas wound up leading by only three at the break.
"We could have had a much bigger lead going into the second half," Nelson said. "I had my best team on the floor, Phil (Jackson) didn't have his best team on the floor, and they still closed the gap."
Which means that there is no gap left for the Mavericks. They are suddenly tied with San Antonio after a 76-game ride atop the West and the Spurs have the easier schedule from here to the finish. That makes the Mavericks favorites to finish third in the conference standings.
It also has to make the Mavericks squeamish, knowing they'll probably have to come back soon for first-round playoff games at Staples Center, where anything can happen to Dallas and inevitably does.