- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Before the Los Angeles Lakers begin their second-round series against the Dallas Mavericks on Monday, there continues to be some second-guessing about the state of guard Kobe Bryant's sprained left ankle.
"I'm fine," Bryant said after sitting out practice Saturday to rest the ankle that he hurt late in Game 4 of the Lakers' first-round series against the New Orleans Hornets. "I finished off Game 4 fine, played Game 5 fine, Game 6 was fine [too]."
Bryant averaged 23.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.7 steals on 41.9 percent shooting in 36.8 minutes in Games 1 through 4. He had far less playing time in Games 5 and 6 (29.5 minutes per game), but his production level stayed about the same as he averaged 21.5 points, 1.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.0 steals on 48.3 percent shooting.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson would not go so far as to grant his star guard a clean bill of health, however.
"It still affects him a lot," Jackson said. "This is not going to go away anytime soon. We're just going to have to be very close to what he's doing, monitor it a lot. I think that he'll have limited amount of practice time, so it's going to be something that he's going to have to do in games that puts him on beam and the right position to help us out."
Bryant said that he spent the team's off day on Friday "getting healthier" and "resting," but Jackson said that Bryant's ankle has yet to fully recover after he sprained it six days ago.
"It's tender to the touch still," Jackson said. "He's still limping when he walks. It's a limited amount of improvement."
Bryant originally sprained his left ankle playing in Dallas on March 12, coincidentally. While Bryant called that injury against the Mavs the "scariest" sprain of his 15-year career, there is no fear among the back-to-back champion Lakers ahead of their Western Conference semifinals against Dallas. But there is a good deal of respect.
"We're obviously preparing to play a different team, a very good team in the Mavericks -- a very efficient team, very well-balanced in what they do," said Derek Fisher. "They play hard, they play with passion, they play with energy."
"They've been at a high level for a long time," said Jackson, citing the Mavericks' string of 11 straight seasons with 50-plus wins.
The Lakers won two out of three regular-season meetings with the Mavericks this year but finished with the same amount of wins (57) overall. Even though the Lakers have home-court advantage as the No. 2 seed against the third-seeded Mavericks, Dallas had the best road record in the league at 28-13 during the regular season. Los Angeles was second at 27-14.
"They're a great team," Bryant said. "They played just as well as we did during the season. They had a stretch there where Dirk [Nowitzki] went down when they lost a bunch of games; other than that, they would have probably won just as many games as San Antonio did. So, they're definitely a championship-caliber team."
The last of the two teams' meetings in the regular season, a 110-82 win by the Lakers on March 31, was marred by an altercation between Jason Terry and Steve Blake that led to a one-game suspension for Matt Barnes after he got involved and later pushed Dallas assistant coach Terry Stotts to the floor when Stotts was trying to restrain him from behind.
"It carries over," Bryant said, when asked if that chippiness between the two teams will still apply to the playoffs.
Barnes, however, vowed not to allow it to affect his focus.
"This is the playoffs, it's going to be a heated battle because of the simple fact that we're both trying to get to the next round but I'm not worried about anything that happened in the past," Barnes said. "I'm not carrying anything over. I'm not trying to go out there and get in trouble and get technical fouls and hurt my team in any way."
Jackson sounded a lot like Barnes when talking about his history of verbal warfare with Dallas owner Mark Cuban, downplaying the impact that he and Cuban lobbing barbs at one another through the media could have on the series.
"That doesn't have anything to do with it," Jackson said. "It's not about generating animosity. This is about healthy competition."
Jackson even took the edge off a dig he made at Cuban earlier in the season when he said, "[Cuban] provided a great roster that's almost as good as money can buy. But not quite."
On Saturday, Jackson said the Mavericks were "the best team money can buy, really. I think they're really one of the better teams and I think the ownership has really supplied them good backup players and a lot of help."
When asked about the quote, Jackson said, "We are too," pointing out that the Lakers have the highest payroll in the league ($91.6 million), even higher than the Mavericks' $90.8 million roster.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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