The Los Angeles Lakers (2-2) visit the Dallas Mavericks (2-1) tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET at the American Airlines Center in an interesting early-season matchup. Both teams are recent NBA champions from the West that have since regressed toward mediocrity. Both have an aging franchise player in the Mavs' Dirk Nowitzki and the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, who is still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. Let's take a look at the keys to the game.
Xavier Henry's increasing role
According to Serena Winters of Lakers Nation, head coach Mike D'Antoni will start Henry tonight:
And why not? The former first-round pick is averaging 14.3 points per game.
"He’s played as well, if not better, than anybody so there is no reason not to go ahead and do this," D'Antoni said, according to ESPN.com.
Henry has replaced Nick Young as the team's starting shooting guard for the moment. How the two perform during their split minutes tonight could be an early indicator of who will hold the position down until Bryant returns.
Monta Ellis' shot selection
When the Mavericks signed Ellis this past July, they knew they were picking up a player who was capable of scoring outbreaks but also of poor shot selection.
So far, Ellis has lived up to his billing. In Dallas' opener, he led the team to victory over the Hawks with 32 points and made 11 of his 17 shots. Two nights later, he only made seven of his 19 attempts as the Mavs fell to the Houston Rockets.
The Mavericks' fate in this game and others may lie in Ellis' consistency. Pay attention to the quality of the shots Ellis can manage against the Lakers backcourt in the first quarter. It may be a predictor for the final score.
The paint could be the place with the most important action tonight. If Pau Gasol (11.0 rebounds per game so far) can control the boards against a Dallas team that ranked 28th in rebound rate last year, via ESPN.com, the Lakers could cruise. If Los Angeles doesn't rebound well, it will add to the grumbles that Chris Kaman and Jordan Hill should be playing more.
Plus, if the game is close, we may see the winning shot coming from the hands of a 7-footer. Nowitzki has long been the go-to guy in the clutch for Dallas. But with Bryant injured, the Lakers will turn to Gasol in those moments, according to the team's official Twitter:
We'll see how the big Spaniard responds.
Neither of these teams is willing to fully embrace tanking out of hope that their star player will again compete on a relevant team. Therefore, it's very possible that both the Lakers and the Mavericks will be on the playoff bubble come March and April, making this head-to-head game important. Tonight's winner could have major implications down the road.