Can Dirk, Mavs KO Kobe and Lakers?

Kobe. Phil. Dirk. Cuban. Artest. J-Kidd. Yeah, it's on.

For the first time since Kobe Bryant lived in Italy, Phil Jackson was a Chicago assistant coach and Mark Cuban was a young entrepreneur, the Lakers and Mavericks are meeting in the NBA playoffs. And the stakes are high: With No. 1 seed San Antonio out and No. 4 Oklahoma City down 1-0 in its series, L.A. and Dallas have an open range in the West.

We could ask 500 questions about this series, but we stuck to five and a bonus:

1. What are you most looking forward to seeing on the court?



Jeff Caplan, ESPN Dallas: While Tyson Chandler's ability to handle Andrew Bynum will be a key, how the Mavs deal with Kobe Bryant will be more intriguing. DeShawn Stevenson will start on Kobe, but Stevenson typically plays less than 15 minutes a game. That would mean forward Shawn Marion gets the brunt of Kobe, which leaves a mismatch for Ron Artest.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: I want to see how physical this series will or won't be. The Mavs have the size to match the Lakers, but do they have the toughness to go with it? And while the Lakers like to exude this aura of confidence and toughness, we didn't see a whole lot of it against the smaller Hornets. Whose bigs blink first?

Brian Kamenetzky, ESPN Los Angeles: Dallas' zone versus L.A.'s offense. The Lakers are well-equipped to bust a zone, running an offense encouraging ball and player movement with highly skilled, excellent passers. On the other hand, they're a middling jump-shooting team and are often too willing to settle, something the Suns took advantage of in last year's West finals.

Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: A vintage Kobe Bryant performance. The Hornets series made me think that maybe the days of Bryant's superhuman displays are over. But then he goes and drops some spectacular reminders that he is still the Mamba. I want to see it all: buzzer-beating game winners, an Okafor-style throwdown or two and just maybe, if he gets it rolling, a 50-point game.

Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: Kobe and Dirk performing at their best; Gasol raising his game to match, or even surpass, that of Nowitzki; Andrew Bynum continuing his evolution as the best center not named Dwight Howard; Jason Kidd's ageless excellence as a floor general; Lamar Odom's coast-to-coast finishes. Simply put, the elite players showing off their majestic skill sets to us all.

2. What are you most looking forward to seeing/hearing off the court?



Jeff Caplan, ESPN Dallas: Could there be a series with more built-in off-court drama? We don't even need a playoff series. We already have Cuban calling Phil Jackson a "boy toy" and talking smack to Ron Artest in the last game in L.A. Of course, Jackson is never afraid to poke fun at anyone, especially Cuban, and I expect both to be in postseason form.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: You could ask me this question for any L.A. series and the answer would still be Ron Artest. Is he going to Twitter-battle Mark Cuban again? Is he going to make a short joke about J.J. Barea? Will he try to take Peja mentally out of this series? Expect anything from Ron.

Brian Kamenetzky, ESPN LA: I'm sure the NBA Cares folks are licking their chops over Mark Cuban versus Phil Jackson, but I'm curious about the other guys. Five players were ejected when the teams last met, and the Mavericks are working to overcome questions of groinal fortitude. If the Mavs find themselves on the wrong end of a lopsided score, will they get chippy?

Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: Mark Cuban usually makes things a whole heck of a lot more interesting. Plus, he'll be particularly feisty if things aren't going well. I can already picture him taking shots at Phil Jackson and PJ returning a snide comment or two. But nothing would be more fun or juicy than a Cuban versus Artest subplot of some kind.

Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: The organizational response to this series loss will be major and I'll be watching intently. If the Lakers are exiled, do they stick with the triangle and hire Brian Shaw upon Phil Jackson's retirement or move in a different direction? And what of the Mavs' inability to win with this core? Do they blow it all up?

3. Which player will you be watching most closely for each team?



Jeff Caplan, ESPN Dallas: For the Mavs, it's Jason Kidd. He scored 21 points (five 3s) and had 10 assists in their lone win against the Lakers in January. In two March losses, he had only 11 points (three 3s) and 15 assists combined. Kidd is the pacesetter, and with only one off day per game until after Game 6, it could be an endurance test for the 38-year-old.

For the Lakers, it's Lamar Odom. The Mavs have no one who can match his size and versatility. He can do serious damage in this series.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: For the Lakers, I want to see if Andrew Bynum can continue to be a force under the boards. Can he get Tyson Chandler in foul trouble to force Brendan Haywood to be involved? For Dallas, does Jason Kidd continue to make teams pay for leaving him open beyond the arc?

Brian Kamenetzky, ESPN LA: If Dallas is to pull the upset, Dirk can't just be good, he needs to be great. The Lakers can get by with less from Kobe. Pau Gasol, though, is facing plenty of scrutiny following the first round, and another subpar series will call his fitness for a long playoff run into question.

Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: Can Andrew Bynum continue his stellar play? A confident Bynum is a dangerous Bynum and could very well be the difference-maker. Shawn Marion will certainly be worth keeping an eye on, especially when it comes to guarding Kobe. He knows the scouting report on Kobe, but applying it is another matter altogether.

Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: The Dirk-Gasol battle intrigues me to no end, as they play the same position and are the top European players in the game. Even with Gasol shooting more jumpers this season, his post-oriented game against Dirk's perimeter attack offers a striking contrast from players who will spend so much time guarding each other.

4. What is the potential fatal flaw for each team?



Jeff Caplan, ESPN Dallas: Jason Terry has had poor postseasons the past two years, but managed a calm, cool and collected first round, averaging 17.3 points on 48.8 percent shooting and making a concerted effort to drive to the rim. But if his shot dries up and he doesn't check his emotions, it could spell trouble.

For the Lakers, it has to be the potential for further injury -- specifically for Bynum's knee and Kobe's ankle. If either is hobbled or out, it will be lights out for L.A.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: The Lakers' potential fatal flaw is execution. Will Kobe allow them to run the offense that helps them succeed? Will Pau Gasol give Kobe a reason to defer? Is Odom going to step up consistently?

For the Mavericks, who is willing to help Dirk out? Their mentality in the past has left him out to dry but he needs help.

Brian Kamenetzky, ESPN LA: For the Mavs, it's a lack of consistent, reliable secondary scoring to help Dirk carry the load. Meanwhile, the champs have a questionable bench beyond Lamar Odom, and at some point their inability to hit open jumpers with consistency could hurt.
Plus, while Kobe has made it through two games since spraining his left ankle against the Hornets, the ankle and foot still aren't 100 percent.

Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: It's the Mavericks' smaller, less-skilled front line versus the Lakers' size and length, two proven commodities I'm not sure Dallas has an answer for.

On the other hand, the Lakers have to be prodded or swimming in adversity before they wake up and start playing playoff basketball, which could spell doom against a team as hot as the Mavs.

Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: Can the Mavs defend the paint when Chandler sits? If they can't, the Lakers will feast inside to the tune of four wins.

Meanwhile, can L.A.'s reserves cover Jason Terry and J.J. Barea? Small, quick guards consistently kill the Lakers, and they'll be severely tested by the Mavs' reserve duo.

5. Mavs-Lakers at long last: Who wins?

Jeff Caplan, ESPN Dallas: Lakers in six. There are just too many bad mismatches for the Mavs to get the Lakers up against the ropes. Unless Dallas gets heroic efforts from Dirk, Terry and Kidd, and consistent scoring from Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic, L.A. will move on.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Lakers win it in six with lots of complaining about the officiating ruining a should-be-great series.

Brian Kamenetzky, ESPN LA: In the end, the matchups just don't work for the Mavs. They're a great road team and could steal one at Staples, but the Lakers can win in Dallas, too. L.A. in six.

Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: The Lakers will take the series in seven games with a motivated Bryant and a spirited effort from Andrew Bynum, who turns in career-best numbers by dominating the Mavericks' weaker front line. Or if Gasol gets it in gear and returns to his regular-season brilliance, it could be over in six.

Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: L.A. has too much size and that Kobe Bryant guy. I have the Lakers in six games, winning games 1, 2, 5 and 6. The Lakers have proved that they'll close a team out on the road and the Mavs will fall just as the Hornets did, on their home floor.

Should the winner of this series be favored to win the West? NBA title?

Jeff Caplan, ESPN Dallas: Yes, the winner will be favored to win the West. If it's the Lakers, chalk them up as the favorite to win it all, but I can't quite give that mantle to the Mavs quite yet, even if they dethrone the reigning champs.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Only if the Lakers are the victors.

Brian Kamenetzky, ESPN LA: If it's the Lakers, yes. Until someone beats them, I'm sticking with the Lakers in the West and into the Finals. If Dallas pulls the upset, they still wouldn't be my pick to beat Oklahoma City, Memphis or the likely Eastern Conference rep.

Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: The favorite to win the West will come from this series largely due to the inexperience in the other half of the bracket (Grizzlies, Thunder). But the NBA title? Depends on the matchup. Whether it's Boston, Chicago or Miami coming out of the East, I think they'd roll the Mavericks, but if the East winner meets the Lakers in the Finals, I'm going with L.A. in every case. The Lakers' combination of experience and the best front line in the game will overcome any disadvantage they might face without home-court advantage.

Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: Yes, if the winner is the Lakers. They're the only team from this matchup that can win both the West and the championship. If Dallas advances past L.A., I predict the Mavs will fall to the winner of Memphis-Oklahoma City, with the winner of that series falling to the East champs.

ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPN Dallas, and Andy Kamenetzky covers the Lakers for ESPN Los Angeles. Chris Palmer is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Zach Harper hosts ESPN's Daily Dime Live. Darius Soriano write for the TrueHoop Network.
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