If you happened to catch the season-opening matchup between the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers Tuesday night, you might have been a bit surprised by the outcome. In fact, the outcome was only one of many surprises that took place at the Staples Center.
The drama concerning the future home of center Dwight Howard has dominated basketball websites, blogs and NBA telecasts for too many months to count. It only gained some clarity over the summer when the perennial All-Star was finally traded to Los Angeles.
But there were also rumors swirling for months that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban would make a play for Howard at the first available opportunity—and no, that opportunity really hasn’t happened yet, given the state of Dallas’ roster and salary obligations.
After Tuesday night’s season-opening victory over Howard and the new-look Lakers, that opportunity might not matter to Cuban.
From the moment the Howard trade was announced, adding him to a Lakers roster that already included Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers were all but crowned as the future NBA champions next summer.
But then came Tuesday night.
You remember Dallas winning an NBA championship even more recently than Los Angeles, knocking off Miami in six games in the NBA Finals just two summers ago. But you also know that the core of that team, aside from Dirk Nowitzki, is basically gone.
You know the rest of the story and about how dramatically the personnel have changed for a team that won its first championship less than two years ago. But what nobody could know is exactly what direction this “mystery” team is heading. Remember that the defending champs, last summer, failed to win even a game against defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City in their only postseason series.
Tuesday night was one of those games that’s outcome seemed completely backwards and out of the blue. When you consider all of the hype surrounding the Lakers and the perception that Dallas immediately fell apart, which they did, following their championship win, it sure didn’t seem like this game would go the way it did.
Dallas outfought, out-hustled and outplayed the “team to beat” in the Western Conference, and in their own house, by a score of 99-91—and this game wasn’t even that close.
The team that’s been bolstering their roster with talent and high salaries actually looked like the team that’s without direction, unproven and even getting older and slower.
Nowitzki and center Chris Kaman, arguably Dallas’ best scorers, were not available for this game, which made it seem even more likely that the Mavericks might not be able to compete in this one.
This game was controlled by the Lakers in the first quarter, and then everything changed.
By the end of the third quarter, I found myself wondering why exactly Nash looked like he was shooting a bowling ball while pulling a piano around the court.
And then there was Howard, who chose his first game in a Lakers uniform to actually foul out of the contest in the fourth quarter, frankly, because Dallas' center and new face, Elton Brand, was whipping him.
The word is out on Howard. For as good of a player as he is, teams know how to knock him off point and help him lose composure. Howard looked like a kid that just opened up a new toy at tipoff and then by halftime wanted another one.
Brand was dominant in the paint, with 11 rebounds, and he chipped in eight points and a blocked shot.
And how about the Mavericks' debut of Darren Collison at point guard? After all, he’s the guy that had to prove that the world was not going to end without the ancient Jason Kidd, now playing in the Big Apple.
Collison looked faster than anybody else on the court, especially Nash, who never really found much of a groove. His 17 points were something you might have expected from new shooting guard O.J. Mayo, who added another 12. The Mavs backcourt tallied four steals on the night and a total of seven assists.
Familiar faces like Shawn Marion and Brandon Wright were also in high gear, while the Lakers just couldn’t seem to figure out what was going on. Wright was Dallas’ second-highest scorer with 14 points, five rebounds and three blocked shots.
Efforts like these were supposed to be what the Lakers were made of—but not on this night.
Remember this: Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle has won a championship, and he did it with a roster that absolutely nobody took seriously, despite the Mavericks' strong regular season of 2010-2011. But Carlisle, easily the most important sports figure in Dallas/Ft. Worth at this time, has assembled another roster of rookies, renegades and rejects—and, of course, Nowitzki—that might be a surprise this season.
Nowitzki will be back, and Dallas will expect contributions from Kaman sooner than later. These two players will go far in determining how far Dallas goes this season. But we do know that Dallas can win without Nowitzki and that the Mavericks have some new pieces that can make a difference not seen last season.
The Lakers, on the other hand, are still wondering if they can win with Howard.