- Stephen A. Smith, ESPNNewYork.com columnist
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LOS ANGELES -- Throughout this 2010-2011 NBA season, and through the first round of the playoffs, we haven't learned anything about the Los Angeles Lakers we didn't already know. They still play when they want, as well as they want, against whomever they want -- and could care less what anyone thinks. Including their opponents.
"We don't worry about anyone but ourselves, " is Derek Fisher, the way Lakers' point guard and five-time champion, put it recently. "We tend to know ... so long as we do what we're suppose to do, there's no need to worry about anyone else. Really! That's how it has always worked for us."
Needless to say, Father Time is not of primary concern to these Lakers. From appearances, neither are opponents. Yet, as this Western Conference semifinals series versus the Dallas Mavericks gets set for Monday night, with Mavs' owner Mark Cuban scheduled to saunter into Staples Center with an entirely different cast of characters than the ones who've been customarily punked by L.A. in recent memory, all indications point to the two-time defending NBA champions needing much more than their usual bravado and nonchalance to march on and continue to defend their crown.
The Lakers have the aging, yet spectacular Kobe Bryant. The Mavs have a star in Dirk Nowitzki, fresh off of averaging 27 points and 7.8 rebounds in a first-round series versus the Portland Trail Blazers. L.A. has Pau Gasol. Again, Dallas has Nowitzki. The champions have the reigning sixth-man of the year in Lamar Odom while their opponent has someone in Jason Terry, whom the Mavs believe was more deserving of the reward. And whatever size-advantage the Lakers were deemed to have on their frontline in Gasol, Odom and Andrew Bynum appears to strike little fear in the hearts of a Mavs squad with the 7-foot Nowitzki, another in the defensive-minded Tyson Chandler and a backup in Brendan Haywood, who should be able to hold his own versus L.A.'s 23-year-old starting center. At least for a few minutes per game.
"We'll be ready," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle deadpanned on Friday morning, just hours after his team knocked off the Blazers in Portland. "I'm not going to say anything stupid to provide bulletin board material for [the Lakers], but we're confident in our team. We know what we can do. We know who we're playing against and that it will take an awful lot to beat L.A., but we believe in ourselves. We believe we have the team it takes to get the job done. We'll be [at Staples Center] on Monday night."
Consider Carlisle's words a breath a fresh air because, quite honestly, something more than stats and basketball analysis is needed to give Dallas a viable chance. Although this series will mark the first time these two teams are facing one another in the playoffs in 23 years, we've seen enough collapses by the Mavs versus the Lakers in recent memory to provoke enough raised eyebrows and "yeah, right!" expressions when anyone from their camp has the temerity to ooze confidence and swagger.
Aside from the numerous times they've folded like cheap tents versus the Lakers, the recent 110-82 drubbing they endured the last time they showed their collective faces in L.A. spoke volumes about where the Mavs are, and how far they need to go to legitimately compete for a crown.
We can point to the 27.3 points on 45 percent shooting (44 percent on 3-pointers) Nowitzki recorded in the first round, or the spark Terry gave Dallas off the bench, or even the emergence of Jason Kidd, looking every bit like the seasoned point guard the Mavs needed him to be. But what matters most is how they got stomped, with a No. 2 seed -- and home-court advantage at stake for this very series -- on the line.
Tempers flared, albeit between Terry and Lakers backup Steve Blake. Instead of folks looking at the Mavs as being feisty, they were maligned for leaving a representation of their physical prowess up to a miniature reserve guard with a little more muscle-tone than Lakers' 65-year-old coach, Phil Jackson.
The Mavs allowed this, mind you, knowing they pretty much let L.A.'s frontline do what it wanted, with Bynum shooting better than 70 percent against them, with Gasol and Odom shooting better than 51 percent.
"[The Lakers'] size is a problem for us," Mavs forward Shawn Marion openly admitted to reporters, stating the obvious. "Bynum is a handful for us. And Gasol. And Lamar. We have to make sure we put pressure on those guys and make it hard for them."
If only that were enough.
The Mavs, with their miniature backcourt, will also need to figure out a way to defend Bryant. If you put Terry on him, Bryant will post Terry up all day. He'll do the same to Kidd, probably prompting foul trouble from Dallas' floor general. And putting the 6-foot-8 Marion on Bryant forces Carlisle to switch Kidd to defending the 6-foot-7, 260-pound Ron Artest, which clearly will have Artest salivating.
"I said we were confident," Carlisle joked. "I never said winning this series would be easy."
But can it be done?
If Kidd continues to hit open 3's. If Nowitzki plays like a league-MVP, better than the 22 points and 10 rebounds he's averaged versus the Lakers this season. If Chandler and Nowitzki and Haywood show up defensively and negate L.A.'s much-heralded size advantage -- and Dallas just hit shots instead of withering beneath the pressure like it always seems to do, who knows?
Back in July, when the Mavs had acquired Chandler in a trade with Charlotte, team president Donnie Nelson said this: "When we do something, all our sights are set on L.A."
We'll see how serious and authentic he was.
Follow Stephen A. Smith on Twitter: @stephenasmith.
The Lakers can't take any games off against this hungry Dallas squad.