Texas trip works Lakers into early playoff lather


You have the NCAA Tournament. You have the Best In The West Round Robin.

You have to know by now which one we'll be watching.

Lakers at Mavericks on Tuesday. Lakers at Spurs on Wednesday. Spurs at Mavericks on Thursday.

And if just one of the above approaches Sunday's thrilling aperitif -- that would be Mavericks at Lakers, not UCLA-Cincinnati -- you'd have to take it.

You could scarcely hope for more from Round 1, Sunday night's bow at Staples, in which the revamped Mavericks limited Shaquille O'Neal to one shot in the fourth quarter … ushered Kobe Bryant to a 14-point game … played Steve Nash and Nick Van Exel together in the fourth quarter until each had 20 points … hoisted 40 3-pointers as a team … and had two fairly clean looks from deep in the final minute that could have won the game.

The Mavericks also lost, for the 23rd straight time in L.A. dating to 1990, but Don Nelson couldn't really complain until that final minute. Though his team certainly shot too many 3s, especially after drawing four quick team fouls in the fourth quarter, the only really fatal error was the shared failure of Raef LaFrentz and Dirk Nowitzki to defend the Lakers properly in that final minute. The plan called for a bear hug when Shaq got the ball in the post. Instead, the ball got quickly kicked back out to Robert Horry for what wound up being the game-deciding triple.

So Dallas had to settle for rousing the hosts into title mode, which isn't the easiest thing to do before April Fool's Day. Phil Jackson, meanwhile, all but thanked the Mavericks for the shove, believing in his typically Phil manner that the intensity generated by this Round Robin is actually better for his team than for the fans who get to soak up all these strangely big games in March.

Jackson reminds that he has always believed "the more this team is challenged, the better off they are." If that's true again -- and if Shaq's toe can take it -- it could result in the Lakers hitting their 15-1 groove a couple weeks early.

L.A., you see, has a more difficult stretch-run schedule than the Mavericks. Just this week, after the Round Robin, the two-time champs also have to play at home to Detroit on Friday and away at Sacramento on Sunday. In all, 13 of their final 17 games send the Lakers against teams certain to reach the playoffs, and two more foes -- Miami and Washington -- who are chasing playoff berths.

This would concern most clubs, especially given the fragile state of Shaq's toe and when the chance to rest it before the playoffs would seemingly be the preference. Instead, judging by Sunday's first glance, the Lakers are still quite the switch-flippers. The game with Dallas became a 3-point shootout, and Dallas has the better gunners now more than ever after the acquisitions of Van Exel and LaFrentz. Yet it was Horry and Rick Fox and Derek Fisher combining for 51 killer points to consign the Mavs to their 41st defeat in the teams' past 44 meetings.

"All those games we let slip away don't really concern me," says Shaq, who isn't listening when you run down the Lakers' embarrassments against Atlanta, Denver, Golden State, Memphis and the two Chicago debacles.

Adds assistant coach Jim Cleamons: "We've shown glimpses of playing well all year, but injuries and suspensions and all that stuff have also entered into the equation. Are we where we were last year? No. But we are a better team than we were at this point last year. We're a better team than we were last year on March 15. Our chemistry is better."

The last time he was in Dallas, on Super Bowl Sunday, O'Neal said it would be "fine with me" if the Lakers merely got "one of those first four spots." It's a different forecast now, after L.A. followed a 16-1 start and its 19-15 lull with the current 12-2 burst. You get the sense the Lakers are going to wind up No. 1 in the West, should the harder schedule indeed ramp them into their best ball of the season.

No one's suggesting that the Kings are prepared to concede. They've led the conference almost from the start and feel as though a seven-game series against L.A. would be markedly different than last spring's if Games 1 and 2 are in Sacramento, compared to playing Games 3 and 4 at home -- and already down 2-zip -- in 2001's second round.

At least we think that's what they believe. The Philadelphia Inquirer attributed the following statements to Chris Webber over the weekend: "We need home-court advantage to beat the Lakers. If we don't get it, then we don't have a shot. You can quote me on that." Webber (surprise) has since backed off those sentiments.

What's clear is that the Lakers don't yet have a clear-cut rival, as they did during the past two title marches with Portland and San Antonio.

The Spurs are obviously playing better, and Tim Duncan is probably right behind O'Neal in a MVP chase no longer fronted by Jason Kidd, but a soft recent schedule has helped matters.

Minnesota has beaten the Lakers twice for the first time in its history, but the T-Wolves have also responded to the last L.A. conquest by losing seven straight.

Thus there's a growing sentiment that the hard-charging Blazers might still represent the foremost threat, with all their length and athleticism and big names. From here, though, that's still a prove-it-to-me team. The Blazers will be considered fragile and/or hazardous to themselves until we see them in a playoff setting. Like Miami, there's also the risk they might not have a lot left for the playoffs after digging out of such a deep hole.

The Mavs? They enter Tuesday's rematch comforted by the realization that their problems are shared by just about everyone. None of the other top West contenders has such a tough time winning regular-season games against L.A., but it might just be that Dallas and chatty Mark Cuban draw the best out of the Shaq-Kobe-Phil triumvirate.

Look at the scores. Since the Staples Center opened, almost every meeting has been a nail-biter, with the Lakers scraping through every time. The margins in those six games are eight, two, two, nine, four and two points. And now Dallas has even more pick-and-roll options than before, with Nick and Raef, so the Mavs have L.A.'s attention, if nothing else.

"It definitely made them a better team," Kobe says.

Just not quite a rival.

"Not yet," Van Exel said.

The implication, of course, is that the Mavericks have to win a game first. If round-robin play ends the Dallas drought, at least you can have the argument.

Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.