Lakers @ Mavericks - 9:30 p.m. EST, ESPN
Wednesday night's matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks is many things: a collision of kind-of rivals, a rematch of playoff opponents, a game with postseason seeding implications and well, a Lakers game on national television.
But it has the chance to be something very different and a fair bit more violent. Andrew Bynum is set to take on a Mavs team missing Brendan Haywood due to a nagging right knee injury, and should be dominant against the much lankier Ian Mahinmi and Brandan Wright.
That tandem of reserve bigs has been great for Dallas this season, but both players lack not only Haywood's sophistication as a post defender, but also his sheer size. Mahinmi and Wright may be cut from a thinner, more athletic mold, but it's hard to imagine their quickness doing that much good against the methodical Bynum, who has thus far been able to overpower just about any interior defender unlucky enough to be pitted against him this season.
The two times Dallas and L.A. met this year, Haywood was able to hold Bynum to averages of 18 points (on 60 percent shooting) and 15 rebounds. What specifically that omen holds for Mahinmi and Wright we can't rightly know, but their exciting and flawed substitution for Haywood surely makes for one hell of an albatross.
Dallas is among the league's best defensive teams, but with Haywood sidelined and Shawn Marion — the Mavs' top defender—possibly out as well, it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Mavs aren't completely grilled by the Lakers offense. L.A. is by no means some shining example of offensive efficiency, but the prospect of covering Bynum without Haywood and Kobe Bryant without Marion (and Delonte West, for that matter), is a rather brutal one for Dallas.
Then again, the Mavs were set for the same seemingly inevitable demise against the San Antonio Spurs last weekend; Dallas appeared theoretically incapable of defending Tony Parker and Tim Duncan in the pick and roll (not to mention Manu Ginobili on the wing) thanks to their various injuries, and yet the defense was able to hold enough ground to let Dallas' principled, productive offense go to work.
The Mavs are moving the ball and maximizing possessions at an elite level right now, and if Wright, Mahinmi and/or a collection of swarming Maverick defenders are able to establish some sense of defensive success, this could be a game for the taking.
Yet it all still seems to rely on Bynum, and more specifically, how dedicated the Lakers are to exploiting his advantage. Bryant's perpetual contradiction — in that he's both a student of the game and an active blasphemer of its most sacred tenets — has thrown the Lakers offense for a loop at times this season. And though Pau Gasol is the most frequent victim of that internal conflict (read: of Bryant's shot selection), Bynum is hardly immune.
If the Mavs can manage to put Bryant on tilt and remove Bynum as an every-possession option, they'll put their offense in a position to take a winnable game. Yet if Bryant and the Lakers remain disciplined in their surely planned efforts to feed Bynum throughout the game, I'm not sure that Dallas is at all equipped to counter.
It could get messy. Or it could merely be a test... of Dallas' fourth-ranked defense, of a scheme sound in its principles, of Kobe's better judgment or of the consistency of the Mavs' ball movement. It's all of that and more, I suppose, as L.A. and Dallas are set to face off in one of the more fascinating matchup archetypes that this strange, strange league has to offer: that in which one side is so certainly doomed that they're surely not.