DALLAS -- The Dallas Mavericks walked away from Saturday night's 96-91 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers believing they had battled the two-time defending champs to the wire but simply picked the wrong game to miss a lot of shots.
That's partly true. A 43 percent shooting night failed to take advantage of Kobe Bryant's making just 6 of 20 shots for 16 points. He was on the bench nursing a badly twisted ankle during an eight-minute stretch from late in the third quarter until midway through the fourth, when the Lakers stretched what was a rapidly shrinking 65-63 lead to 84-75.
Where Miami beat the Lakers with Bryant going 8-of-21 two nights ago, Dallas got beaten on its home floor in front of 20,619, the largest regular-season crowd ever at the American Airlines Center, when the Lakers' star didn't shine.
What emerged has to be considered cause for concern for the Mavs when looking ahead to what appears to be an inevitable conference semifinal playoff series, assuming both teams take care of first-round business.
The Mavs will play the Lakers a third and final time regular season in L.A. on March 31, a game that could well decide the No. 2 seed and home-court advantage. If the Mavs are to hold on to the coveted spot -- their lead slid to just a half-game after Saturday's loss -- they'll have to figure out two critical matchup issues.
First, how do they contain 7-foot center Andrew Bynum, who had a season-high 22 points and 15 rebounds, and 7-foot forward Pau Gasol, who finished with 18 points? The Lakers pounded home 56 points in the paint, 58.3 percent of their total output, and scored 20 of their 22 first-quarter points in the key.
The last time the Mavs saw the Lakers, on Jan. 19, Bynum was 20 games into his return from injury. He had 10 points and seven rebounds in Dallas' 109-100 win. Bynum, now healthy and gaining confidence, has been a much-improved player who has developed a dominant inside presence during the past few weeks.
"He played very well," Chandler said. "They found him a lot. They found him in open space for him to finish. He got some offensive rebounds. He did an excellent job of putting himself in position for some key plays down there."
Second, what would Dallas do with Roddy Beaubois in a playoff series against L.A.? The Mavs have long hoped that Beaubois' speed and athleticism would serve as an offensive boost and complement to Dirk Nowitzki. But, Beaubois' 6-foot, 170-pound frame seemed ill-equipped to handle this big Lakers lineup.
Beaubois was simply lost in the matchup shuffle. Because both he and Jason Kidd can't guard Bryant for extended stretches, small forward Shawn Marion is the man. Beaubois takes point guard Derek Fisher, leaving Mavs coach Rick Carlisle to pit Kidd against Ron Artest. Kidd is durable and rugged at 6-4, 210 pounds but physically outmanned against the 6-7, 260-pound Artest.
"It's tough. You obviously don't want to start him [Beaubois] on Kobe," said Nowitzki, who matched Marion with a team-high 25 points. "But, if you start Roddy, that's what you have to do, because Roddy certainly can't muscle with Artest. So, you either go a little bigger and not start Roddy, or you start Roddy, and J-Kidd has to guard Artest. So, that's the bind you're in."
Kidd said he felt he was wrestling Artest (12 points, eight rebounds) every time Artest posted him up in the paint. Kidd picked up three fouls in less than 15 first-half minutes, and he had no points and just three assists, a sign the Mavs' offense wasn't getting into flow.
Barely a minute into the third quarter, Kidd got hit with foul No. 4.
"They're the champs, so they are tough no matter who you have to guard," Kidd said. "But, at the end of the day, you look at the position. I'm a point guard guarding a small forward who is really a power forward, so, you know. I'll guard anybody, and so that's the way I look at it. I got in foul trouble early, which didn't help me offensively. We just didn't get out and run."
The predicament is tough looking forward. It would seem crazy not to start Beaubois, the hyped, second-year guard who is hailed as offensive lightning for a team that will desperately need a charge in the postseason. On Saturday, Beaubois was well out of his element. He had consecutive turnovers during the Lakers' 9-0 run in the second quarter and was scoreless (0-of-6) until a review of his layup as time expired gave him two points.
Still, the Mavs will rightly claim that they were right there down to the wire. Jason Terry's 9-foot baseline floater spun around the rim and out with 12.9 seconds to go. If it had dropped, Dallas would've been down by one.
Then again, this was a night when Bryant was off and then hobbled and played just 32 minutes. Still, the Mavs couldn't get over the hump on their home floor.
"I like the way we played," Carlisle said. "I'm disappointed we lost. I'm disappointed we didn't shoot the ball better, but I liked the way we played."
The Mavs can believe that they just picked the wrong night to miss a lot of shots, but the Lakers' size remains the central issue from here on out.
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.