Since the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in 2008, the only team with the size to defend them in the paint has been the Boston Celtics.
LA is 1-1 against Boston in the playoffs and 12-0 against everyone else.
To beat the Lakers, you have to have a front-court that can defend the trio of Andrew Bynum (7'6 wingspan), Pau Gasol (7'5) and Lamar Odom (7'4). And they've just been too tall, too long and too skilled for the rest of the NBA.
None of those other twelve playoff series were ever really in doubt. LA was taken to a Game 7 in only one -- against Houston in 2009 -- and they won by 19 points.
This year, even when New Orleans split the first four games against the Lakers, they never had much of actually winning the series. The Hornets had the smallest starting front-court in the playoffs with Emeka Okafor and Carl Landry; the Lakers had a huge advantage inside which they could exploit at any time.
The Mavericks are the first team the Lakers have faced besides Boston with the size to bang with them inside. Dallas has a two-man rotation of Tyson Chandler (7'1 230 with a 7'2 wingspan) and Brendan Haywood (7'0 260 with a 7'6 wingspan) at center, and another seven-footer in Dirk at the power forward position.
If you can't defend LA in the post, nothing else matters.
That doesn't guarantee a victory against LA, but it does give them a chance.
Everything went right for Dallas in Game 1, and they won by two points. Their margin for error, as Steve Kerr pointed out on the telecast, is virtually zero.
Surprisingly enough, given their reputation, the biggest problem for Dallas in this series is on the offensive side of the ball.
The only Maverick who can consistently create his own shot in the half-court is Dirk. He has averaged 27.4 points per game in these playoffs; the other Game 1 starters for Dallas -- Jason Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson, Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler -- average a combined 30.5. He has a 34.8 usage rating; only two other Mavericks -- reserve guards Jason Terry and JJ Barea -- have one over 20.
Going small in the back-court with Barea and Terry has been one of Dallas' most effective offensive line-ups all season, but they can't use it much against LA. Having the 6'2 Terry guard Kobe Bryant isn't a plan; it's suicide.
Dallas cannot allow this to happen.
LA's weak-link defensively is at the point guard position; Barea and Terry have to attack Derek Fisher and Steve Blake whenever they're guarding them. But in crunch-time, the Lakers can hide their points on Jason Kidd, and put the 6'6 Kobe on the Mavs scoring guards.
The Mavericks have to attack Steve Blake the second he steps on the floor.
Conversely, Kidd has no one to match up with defensively at the end of the game. Terry has to be on Fisher, which leaves the 6'4 Kidd giving up inches either to Kobe or the 6'8 Artest.
Kobe, at this point in his career, no longer has the athletic ability to blow by people. Instead, he relies on his size and foot-work to create shooting angles. If you put a shorter player on him, he will get a good look at the basket.
And while Kidd did an admirable job on Kobe, he still got a lot of open shots at the end of the game. The game's last play, in particular, was a microcosm of that match-up: Kobe fading away and getting a wide-open look at the basket.
Kobe can get a good look against Kidd at will.
The key to guarding Kobe is having a longer defender on him, one who can match his foot-speed and still contest his jumper.
That's why the Maverick with the highest +/- in Game 1 was Corey Brewer, a seldom-used reserve guard whom Dallas picked up mid-season. A long and athletic 6'8 185 perimeter player, he instantly changed the complexion of the game when he came in. With two seven-footers inside, Marion at the 3 and Brewer at the 2, the Mavericks were actually longer and more athletic than the Lakers.
Going forward, Brewer should start in place of DeShawn Stevenson, who at only 6'5 220 can't really bother Kobe's shot. And if Dallas is going to play Kidd at the end of the game, they're better off having Ron Artest (who had 2 points on 1-8 shooting last night) shoot over him than Kobe.
Winning this series is going to require a constant juggling act from Mavs coach Rick Carlisle: his best offensive unit can't defend LA, and his best defensive unit can't score against them.
He has to hope Dallas can stay even offensively when Terry and Barea aren't in the game, and that those two continue to dominate when LA plays their reserve guards -- Shannon Brown and Steve Blake. Then in crunch-time, he has to hope that neither Kobe nor Artest can take advantage of the shorter Kidd defensively.
At the same time, he has to buy time on the interior when Dirk's not on the floor, and hope that Shawn Marion can defend Lamar Odom and keep him off the offensive glass, despite giving up over 3 inches in height.
If all this goes right, like in Game 1, the Mavs still need to out-execute LA down the stretch to win. Their margin for error is slim at best.
And while Dallas needs to play a near-perfect game to beat LA, the Lakers were a Kobe buzzer-beater from winning despite getting only 8 points on 3-8 shooting from Bynum.
Terry, the Mavs second leading scorer, played about as well as you could expect him to play, and he got 15 points. Gasol, the Lakers second leading scorer, had a decidedly average game, and he still got 15 points.
Most tellingly, Dallas was out-scored 46-36 in the paint. Usually over the course of a seven-game series, legs start to get weak and jumpers stop falling. The Mavs will have to reverse that trend, and continue hitting 45% from three-point range.
The reality is, of the five best players in this series, four of them play for LA. The odds are definitely still in their favor.
But unlike most of the Lakers' playoff opponents over the last three years, the Mavericks have a real chance at beating them.
** The most over-rated stat in the NBA: teams that win Game 1 go on to win the series 78% of the time. In a non-competitive series, one that ends 4-0 or 4-1, that number will be much higher. In a competitive series, one that ends 4-2 or 4-3, that number will be much lower. **