Wow! Not in my wildest dreams did I expect the Mavs to take the first two games from the Lakers in Los Angeles. I really didn't think they had much of a chance in this series, given the recent history of these two teams. The Lakers have always been the team that comes up big, while the Mavs are always the team that shrinks down in the moment. That's to my extreme disliking, but that is the case. However, two people, who's opinions I hold in high regards, believed in the Mavs - Charles Barkley and Jason Whitlock - both of whom predicted the Dirks to take the series in 6 games. The fact that they're willing to go with what they truly believe, despite what popular belief tells them and how easy it would've been to pick the Lakers, is the reason I respect them so highly. 90% of analysts would've been afraid to make that pick, even if they had believed it would happen, because they're afraid of looking stupid on national TV.
So just how have the Mavs taken this 2-0 lead over the two time defending Champions? Well, one thing is for sure, this ain't your grandpa's Mavericks team. Perception doesn't always meet reality, and never is that more the case than with the Dallas Mavericks. And that starts with Dirk Nowitzki, who has the reputation of being soft and a bit of a choker, yet ranks 2nd in 4th quarter scoring thus far in the NBA Playoffs. It hasn't just been the small sample size of the Playoffs though, remember Sports Guy had this to say on Dirk's case for MVP this year (speaking for Dirk)...
According to 82games.com, I'm the league's best clutch scorer: in crunch-time, I make 49.5 percent of my field goals, get to the line more than anyone else and make 89 percent of my free throws. I have chunks of Kobe's crunch-time prowess in my stool.But how about the Mavericks as a whole, who probably have a worse reputation than Dirk himself? They lead the NBA in comeback wins when trailing/tied after the 3rd quarter (Dallas - 16, Portland - 14). They were tied with the Miami Heat for most road wins in the NBA throughout the regular season. Los Mavs went into Game 6 of the first round against Portland losing 18 of their past 20 playoff road games, yet all they've done since then is when 3 in a row on the road. All of these statistics contradict what the past 3 seasons of Mavs basketball have led you to believe.
But nobody took any of those numbers seriously going into this Lakers series. After all, it's the Lakers. And these are the Mavs. Well, Game 1 might've turned a few heads, when it was supposed to be the Lakers dominating down the stretch, yet the Mavs stole the game with a 10-2 run to close the game on a night where Kobe was on his A game. Can that be right? Or how bout this? It was the "soft" Mavericks battling back from a 16 point deficit in the 3rd quarter. And surely it wasn't the Mavericks getting T'd up for swinging an elbow right before the end of a first half, was it? After all, it was the Lakers' Matt Barnes, who played for that infamous Golden State team that upset the Mavs in 2007, that said that Golden State team figured out how to defend Dirk: "You have to punk him." Well, "Who's the wildman now?" asks Jon Favreau. But all of this is exactly what happened in Game 1, with the Mavs stealing a game they had no business winning, in what I would call the best game of the NBA playoffs so far.
This is all to drive home the point that these are not the same Mavericks of yesteryear. That team would've folded so fast after Game 4's meltdown against Portland (blew a 23 point lead) that not even Spike Lee in a cape could've saved them. Instead, they have now reeled off 4 straight victories, 3 on the road, 2 against the defending champs, and 1 close out game.
So what has made the difference for them? I would say it begins with Tyson Chandler (straight outta Compton). He has a brought a new attitude to this team, a toughness that has been lacking for them since the departure of DeSagana Diop (haha, I kid....kind of). He forms a perfect duo with Dirk, because while Dirk floats around the perimeter, all Chandler does is protect the paint and throw down alley oops like an O-rim-atang. Beyond that, they have just been slowly acquiring other people's garbage and molding it into something of a masterpiece. And I believe this collection of misfits have grown very tired of the world speaking out against them with the unified belief that this team is soft and can't get it done. That can be a gigantic motivator.
The Lakers on the other hand are experiencing some serious issues that go beyond whatever it is that Steve Blake does on the court (seriously, one of the worst games I've ever seen from an NBA player in Game 2). There were 3 key stats I was keeping my eye on going into this series, 2 of which I thought the Lakers would have a huge advantage. The first was points in the paint since the Mavericks get a lot of their points via jump shots, and I thought the Lakers would have an easier time getting their points. Well, they have dominated this statistic so far outscoring the Mavs 102-74 through two games. The second was rebounding, where I thought the length of Bynum, Pau, and L'Odom would dominate the shorter Mavs frontline. However, since getting manhandled in the first half of Game 1, the Mavs have hung tough in this statistic, with the Lakers holding only a slight edge at 88-79 (this is where I think the Mavs have been able to swing the series in their favor). The last was bench points, where I expected the Mavs to dominate, but not like they have been. Terry, Stojakovic, Haywood, and JJ Barea have absolutely mauled the Lakers second team unit (despite L'Odom playing fairly well so far). The Mavs employ a strategy that I'm a big proponent of by not starting their best 5 players. The 2nd team unit needs a leader on the floor, and Jason Terry is the very best at that (ironically, losing the 6th man of the year award to L'Odom). It's not about who starts, but who finishes.
So is this series over then? Nope, not yet by a long shot. As a Mavs fan you learn to not celebrate something until it is beyond certain. I won't even feel fully confident if the Mavs take a 3-0 lead in this series. My biggest fear right now is that the Ron Artest suspension gives the Lakers some life because A. He's been awful in this series and B. Probably means more minutes for L'Odom (who is the one player the Mavs cannot guard). Dirk isn't comfortable right now though. Trust me, I know how this man thinks. We don't like big leads. And while he took my advice on growing out the beard, he knows that no lead is ever safe when you look this good.