- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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The question that should be asked heading into the Los Angeles Lakers game against the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday is: Will it be a test for the Lakers against a contender, or another regular-season game against a team destined to be an afterthought come April and May?
The Mavericks have gone just 2-9 since Dec. 28, including a six-game losing streak coming into Wednesday's game with the Lakers. In the same time, the Lakers have gone 10-3. Dallas has gone from No. 2 to No. 5 in the Western Conference standings, while Los Angeles has moved up from No. 4 to No. 2.
But even though the team from Big D has dropped consecutive games to the sub-.500 Memphis Grizzlies and Detroit Pistons, it still has more big wins against high-quality opponents than any other team in the league this season. While the Lakers were happy with their win against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, the Mavs can already claim two victories against Oklahoma City along with wins against the San Antonio Spurs, Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics as well as the Miami Heat and the Utah Jazz two times apiece.
"It's a big game for Dallas because they've been struggling, they're looking for a win to kind of kick-start them and we all know how well they play us up there," Kobe Bryant said.
The Mavericks have the personnel to give the Lakers fits and enough time to build back momentum before the playoffs, with a win against the Lakers serving as a launching pad.
Before Dirk Nowitzki missed nine straight games with a sprained right knee, he was a leading MVP candidate. He's a tough cover for the Lakers on defense, pulling Pau Gasol out on the perimeter with his jump shooting game and making life harder on Andrew Bynum to protect the paint solo inside.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said last week that he thinks Chandler should be an All-Star this season for the impact he's had on the Mavericks' defense, despite meager averages of 9.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.
The rest of the rotation is filled out by the versatile Shawn Marion -- who while aging had playoff success against the Lakers in the past as a member of the Phoenix Suns -- as well as two bigger guards in Jason Kidd and DeShawn Stevenson and two quicker ones in Jason Terry and Jose Barea.
They lost Caron Butler to surgery on his right knee at about the same time Nowitzki went down, causing the recent tailspin the team's been in, but that doesn't mean they won't bring in reinforcements. Team owner Mark Cuban has never been one to rest on his laurels, and if there is a deal out there between now and the Feb. 24 trade deadline, history says he'll make it.
Maybe Wednesday's game won't look much like a playoff preview, with the Lakers on the uptick and Dallas trying to get back in the right direction, but there are two more regular-season meetings between the two teams on March 12 and 31 that could provide that.
Still, it's a team that members of the Lakers' organization felt fortunate to have avoided in last season's playoffs. The Mavs split the season series 2-2 and then entered into the postseason having won eight of its last 10 regular-season games before losing to San Antonio in six games in the first round.
"That's the one team we were looking forward to playing a month ago and thinking how good they were or how good they could be," said Jackson, looking ahead to the matchup. "They're still going to be a difficult team but this is a team that has slid in the standings considerably in the last three weeks due to injury."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
2hMarc Stein and Mike Mazzeo
4dIan O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer