LOS ANGELES -- For three weeks and 13 games they've looked invincible. Ridiculously deep. Stupid flexible. Well-coached. Disciplined. And all kinds of confident. For three weeks and 13 games, each Dallas Mavericks tip-off felt like a formality, like you weren't wondering if, but how, they'd carve another notch.
Lakers kick it up a notch
Then Sunday night the Lakers up and beat 'em, 101-98, like it wasn't nothing but a thing, like the Mavs were ripe for the taking all along.
How'd they pull it off? What's the secret recipe every other club in the league will be looking to copy?
Easy. All you need is...
• 1 cup of out-of-nowhere step-up: The joke around the Lakers' locker room is that Sasha Vujacic isn't a "7:30 Shooter" -- money in practice, but tight come game time (he came into the game shooting just 37.4 percent from the field and 31.0 percent from 3).
But when the Mavericks' defenders started pinching Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter, daring the supporting cast to beat them, Sasha took the dare and took his locker-room stock up a notch, hitting three 3-pointers (4-of-5 overall), the last of which gave the Lakers a 100-98 lead.
"He can shoot. We know he can shoot," Luke Walton said afterward. "It's just a matter of confidence."
It's hard to say whether Sasha was truly feeling confident, but mark this down: If you want to mix up a batch of streak-busting you better have one guy, one guy the other club never thought they'd have to think about, who, like a man of faith, is willing to act as if he belonged in the moment and the moment belonged to him.
• 1/2 cup of old-time share-the-ball ball: Friday night, Nuggets coach George Karl called Los Angeles the best passing team in the league. Sunday night they made him look like a prophet, racking up 26 assists (to the Mavericks' 16).
And it wasn't just the number, it was the way they reached it: interior passes, quick touch passes, skips from Kobe to an open Luke, ball rotations from corner to top to corner. The ball was constantly moving. They made Dallas work, start to finish, and got open looks that resulted in 54.9 percent field-goal shooting.
• 2/3 cup of the guy who's really, truly, no joke starting to believe: The Lakers miss Lamar Odom right now, no doubt. They would like to have Kwame Brown healthy, too, most definitely. But it ain't all bad being thin in the first half of the season. Because when you're thin, if you're lucky, that hoop-smart, unselfish, all-purpose glue guy you've got becomes, by necessity and by the grace of his own blooming confidence, a flat-out stalwart.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Luke Walton, a 3-shooting, ballhandling, crazy reverse-180 up-and-over lay-upping, man in full (21 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds).
"It has to be done if we want to win," he said afterward. "You don't have time to think about it. You do whatever it takes, whether it's passing, scoring, rebounding. You get in there."
Boom. There it is. Mark this down: when Odom comes back this is a three-headed team, much more dangerous than when he left hurt.
• 1 cup of superstar: You have to have Kobe being Kobe, and the Lakers did. But not until the fourth quarter, when he went on a classic spree, hitting four of five shots to begin the fourth quarter and pulled the Lakers back within striking distance. It was like watching Ali in Zaire, waiting and waiting and waiting, and then finally letting go a flurry.
• 1/2 cup of clang: The Mavs weren't the Mavs in this one, and that was bound to happen some night. They got double figures out of five guys, like they always do, but they managed just 42 percent from the field. Credit the Lakers' defense, particularly Vujacic, who was active around the perimeter, and Ronny Turiaf, who was a bulldog down low, though he was often working a mismatch. But credit (or blame) the Mavs themselves, too, who too often settled for jump shots when they should have taken the ball inside.
• A pinch of defining-moment smack-down defense: Lakers up 100-98 with 16 seconds to go. Jason Terry is driving the lane for a tying layup. The Lakers' bigs don't want to leave Dirk Nowitzki. It's a done deal. And then, in a flash, it isn't, thanks to Smush Parker, who witnesses will tell you was actually wearing a purple-and-gold cape when he came flying in and palm-blocked the shot as it left Terry's hand.
Not only a big block for the box score, but a huge block for the absolute pandemonium it inspired in the Staples Center crowd. The Mavs were beaten in part Sunday because they played a tough team holding serve on what has become a very tough home court, a flat-out nasty place to play.
• A dash of hesitation, a hint of uncertainty: The Mavericks are, rightfully, a very cool bunch.
"They're very confident about how they want to play right now," Phil Jackson said during pregame.
But late, when this thing was tight, their flowing, cutting, five-headed hydra offense stalled out. Guys were standing, watching, waiting for Nowitzki to do some kind of magic. That ain't going to work every night. And it ain't going to work in the playoffs.
The guy they most need to come alive in these moments is Josh Howard. The kid is near unstoppable when he wants to be (limited only by an inconsistent J), capable of getting into space against any style or size defender you want to throw at him. But he passed on open shots at crunch time Sunday night. He deferred. Too much. This is Nowitzki's team, for sure, but the Mavs will be well-served by letting a game or three rest squarely on young Josh's shoulders, just to get him knowing, without a dash of hesitation or a hint of uncertainty, that he can't be denied.
• And finally, a smidge of lunacy: The Lakers had fallen behind in the third quarter, and had gotten back into the game thanks to the always impressive, but ultimately very predictable, burst from Kobe. To move from getting close to getting over, though, they needed some extra something, some little bit of crazy. And sure enough, on the night he won his 900th game as a head coach in the NBA, Jackson delivered just that, going with a game-in-the-balance lineup of Vujacic, Walton, Parker, Turiaf and Bryant. They were too small to board and too weird to gel, and they were perfect, the finishing touch, the secret ingredient.
No sweat, right?
Teams will figure it out.
The next streak won't be more than 10 or 12 games, tops.
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Jeff Lewis/AP Photo
Lakers forward Luke Walton makes himself at home on the Mavericks bench after going out of bounds to save a loose ball during the Lakers' win over the Mavs.
QUICK DRAWS: Two skills separate ultra-quick guards Leandro Barbosa of Phoenix and Monta Ellis of Golden State from the scores of other similarly fleet-footed guards: superior perimeter shooting ability and the discipline to modulate their speeds. They have blazing speed, but play under control.
DRIBBLE DISSECTION: Dwyane Wade may have the "nastiest" right-to-left crossover in the league. Watch how he'll pause for the briefest of moments after dribbling to the right just before he crosses to the left -- that pause gives Wade the proper timing to change directions just as his defender's balance is shifting in reaction to Wade's hard right-hand dribble.
-- David Thorpe
The Bulls' 106-89 victory on Saturday night ended the Pistons' streak of 12 consecutive wins in Chicago, which had been the longest current road winning streak by one NBA team against another and was the longest streak of that type since the Spurs won 13 straight on the road against the Grizzlies from 1996-2003.
Vujacic Stuns The Mavs With Career High
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images
Suns forward Shawn Marion (24 points, 17 rebounds, three blocks) fights for a rebound with Warriors guard Baron Davis during the Suns' 128-105 win, their fifth in a row.
Quotes of the Day
"Kobe basically took over the game, had some great shots. But really, I think it was the Vujacic guy. Those were points you don't expect. He was hot -- he made big 3s for them."
-- Andrew Ayres
If and when Pat Riley comes back from his surgeries, Miami probably still will be out of the playoffs and left for dead. His return from injury, Shaq's age and a growing list of doubters, as well as the revelation that, while Dwyane Wade is excellent, he can't carry this team by himself, all create the perfect setting for an "Us Against the World" mentality.
The Heat returned this season fat and happy, but by the time Riley returns, they'll be the underdogs again. No one will believe in them, everyone will count them out, and folks will question whether they will even make it to the postseason.
Only the 15 guys in that locker room still will believe. And that will increase their level of play and maybe give them a snowball's chance.
Do I think it will play out this way? Not really.
Ben Wallace was as active as he's been this season in beating the Pistons on Saturday, delivering the type of performance the Bulls envisioned when they signed him to a four-year, $60 million contract. And sparking memories for Rasheed Wallace in the process.
Rasheed Wallace had some fun at his former teammate's expense during pregame warm-ups, when he tried to hand Big Ben a headband. Ben Wallace, who was benched for wearing one during a game at New York in late November, jokingly tossed it aside.
"Just messing with him," Rasheed Wallace said. "That's my man. We've got to mess with him."
"I think the whole team came out with headbands," Ben Wallace said, smiling. "That was premeditated on their part."
-- The Associated Press
Spurs guard Tony Parker missed his first game of the season with a right hip strain, in a 110-96 win over Memphis. Beno Udrih, the third-year guard out of Slovenia, started in Parker's place. Parker, who sat on the bench in street clothes, had started all 34 of the Spurs' games this season prior to Sunday. He's listed as day-to-day.
"It's kind of tight and he's having a hard time pushing off," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who indicated Parker is day-to-day. "It's not long term. I don't know if it's one game or two games or what the deal is." Parker, who had started San Antonio's first 34 games, is the Spurs' second-leading scorer at 19.7 points and leads the team in assists with a 5.9 average. He is one of only two NBA players to average 15 points, five assists and shoot 50 percent. Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns is the other.
• The Mavericks' latest winning streak began Dec. 13, when they beat the Lakers 110-101 in Dallas. That was the last time the Mavericks allowed an opponent to reach 100 points until this game.
• The Mavericks are 31-2 during the past two seasons when Josh Howard scores at least 20.
• Devean George played his first seven NBA seasons with the Lakers before signing with Dallas last summer. He scored nine points in 20 minutes.
• The 25 turnovers by Golden State were the most by a Phoenix opponent this season.
• A win Sunday would have put the Warriors two games above .500, something they haven't been this late in the season since 1993-94.
• Phoenix is 3-0 against Golden State this season.
• Boston's Tony Allen was slow to get up after taking a flagrant foul from Orlando's Darko Milicic with 3:26 left in the fourth quarter. Milicic swung an elbow and Allen came up clutching his chest, but the Celtics guard finished the game.
• Dikembe Mutombo, who played 37 minutes Sunday filling in for the injured Yao Ming, entered the game averaging 11.6 minutes, but has played 25 minutes a game in his previous five games. Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said before the game that he wasn't concerned yet about putting the mileage on the 40-year-old's body.
-- The Associated Press