The Dallas Mavericks have won four of their past five games as they continue a strong late-season push for a playoff spot. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers are struggling to hang on to their postseason hopes.
That makes Tuesday evening's clash between two of the three most recent NBA champions all the more critical.
The Lakers sit in a tie for eighth in the Western Conference with the Utah Jazz thanks to a hard-fought, 103-98 road victory against the Sacramento Kings. Superstar Kobe Bryant passed Wilt Chamberlain for fourth on the all-time scoring list and also dished out 14 assists with just one turnover.
Dirk Nowitzki's season-high 35 points and clutch three-pointer made the difference in Dallas' 100-98 home triumph over the Chicago Bulls on Saturday. The 15-year veteran continues to round into form after missing the first 27 games while rehabbing from knee surgery.
Here is a breakdown of the key developments to watch in this exciting late-season clash, including predictions as to how this showdown will play out in the Staples Center.
When: Tuesday, April 2, at 10:30 p.m. ET
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, Calif.
Records: Dallas Mavericks (36-37), Los Angeles Lakers (38-36)
Injuries (h/t ESPN)
Dallas—Jared Cunningham (knee) OUT
Los Angeles—Steve Nash (hip/back) Day-to-day
Key Storyline: Will Injury Bug Continue to Bite Lakers?
Without the services of star point guard Steve Nash—who left the Kings game in the first quarter and is day-to-day, according to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports—and a torn meniscus for Metta World Peace, the Lakers' turbulent season continues.
Bryant is up to his old tricks in grinding through painful ailments to keep his team alive in the postseason hunt. All five of the Lakers' starters have missed time this season due to injuries, and the volatile lineup is largely to blame for the talented team's inconsistencies.
Nash's absence will force Bryant to continue being more of a facilitator, which may not be a bad thing for the Lakers in the long run.
If the supporting cast that is filling in for the injured players can continue stepping up and notch a home win, it would be momentous for Mike D'Antoni's squad as it enters the final seven games of the regular season.
That said, there is no question the Lakers are shorthanded, and Bryant will have to expend a lot of energy on defense with a nagging bone spur in his foot while guarding swingman Shawn Marion.
Key Matchup: Dirk Nowitzki vs. Pau Gasol
Gasol recently returned to the lineup and is starting to find his groove. His 10 assists against the Kings accentuated the strong ability he has to pass from the post, which he hasn't been able to do much in D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" up-tempo offense.
Over the past eight games, Nowitzki has been on an absolute tear, shooting better than 50 percent from the field on each occasion.
He sounded off to ESPN Dallas' Tim McMahon about how the team's latest stretch is a testament to its resilience amidst an up-and-down season:
Every time people write us out or say we’re done, for some reason, we find a way to hang around.
...I think everybody was thinking this thing was over, and we found a way to turn it around. The same with our season. Probably three weeks ago, nobody thought we could even make it a close race, and here we are.
With the way Nowitzki is playing, Dallas is an extremely dangerous team. Thankfully, the Lakers have Gasol back in the fold. He isn't the greatest athlete, but has enough skill to hang with Nowitzki, and he must make sure he forces the Mavs star into fadeaway jumpers.
Dwight Howard will be manning the paint, which will make finishing at the rim difficult. However, it will be critical that Nowitzki doesn't get there due to his outstanding free-throw shooting.
X-Factor: Steve Blake, PG, Los Angeles Lakers
Thankfully for LA, the Mavs will likely start Mike James at point guard, which actually gives Blake the advantage in that matchup.
Blake is a strong three-point shooter and a wise distributor, and he drained five key three-pointers in relief of Nash in the Kings game. He is more than likely going to start and should share ball-handling duties with Bryant while also having the flexibility to work off the ball.
Los Angeles Times reporter Mike Bresnahan believes that Blake may be the most valuable contributor moving forward, especially with Nash riding the pine:
Mike Bresnahan @Mike_Bresnahan
As Nash deals with injuries, Steve Blake might be Lakers' most important player down the stretch. Yes. Steve Blake: http://t.co/0hCU4Tr2d92013-4-1 16:36:22
Blake indicated in Bresnahan's report that he feels comfortable playing the liberating style of basketball that D'Antoni has implemented on offense, and Bryant expressed confidence that the veteran will be able to step up for the Lakers at this critical juncture of the season.
As long as Blake can keep explosive Mavs point guard Darren Collison in relative check when he comes off the bench, this should be a nice advantage for the perceptibly shorthanded Lake Show to exploit.
Projected Starting Lineups
PG: Mike James
SG: O.J. Mayo
SF: Shawn Marion
PF: Dirk Nowitzki
C: Elton Brand
PG: Steve Blake
SG: Jodie Meeks
G/F: Kobe Bryant
PF: Pau Gasol
C: Dwight Howard
The Mavs are just 1.5 games back of the Lakers, so a win here would be ideal to kick off their four-game road trip. However, Los Angeles has won the past two meetings since dropping the season opener to Dallas on Oct. 30.
Both teams allow over 100 points per game, which means this should be a shootout.
Howard's size to defend the post against Brand and Brandan Wright will provide a mismatch in that regard, and Howard should successfully battle for leverage on the low block thanks to his superior strength.
Look for Bryant to have a big game as a hybrid point forward with double-digit assists and a strong scoring performance.
Given that Dallas shooting guard O.J. Mayo is struggling with a sprained left shoulder, Los Angeles should have ample open looks from the perimeter, as Mayo won't be able to contest as well. Mayo also shouldn't be the offensive threat he typically is.
The Staples Center crowd will be energized by the playoff-like atmosphere that surrounds this game. As long as Nowitzki can be cooled off ever so slightly, the Lakers should pull this one out.
Lakers 108, Mavericks 100