Saturday, April 5, 2008

Mavs can't close out Lakers

LOS ANGELES – Avery Johnson saw desperation in the eyes of Lakers when they visited American Airlines Center 2 ½ weeks ago. The Mavericks coach wanted his team to return the favor Friday night.

A balanced attack and smothering run to open up the second quarter put Dallas in position to upend the Pacific Division leaders – and possible first-round opponent – at Staples Center. The Mavs (47-29) had the lead going into the final 90 seconds, but couldn’t hold it, falling 112-108 in the opener of a challenging two-game trip.

Seventh-place Dallas leaves the cool breezes of Southern California for the scorching desert and Sunday afternoon’s date with Phoenix with slim leads over Denver (half game) and Golden State (one game) in the race for the last two playoff spots in the Western Conference. The Lakers punched a postseason ticket for the 55th time in the 60-year history of the franchise.

Taking another Johnson challenge to heart – play your game as if Dirk Nowitzki wasn’t there – the Mavs shared the ball and everyone attacked, including Nowitzki. The residue of Nowitzki’s four-game absence was more players taking responsibility. All five starters finished in double figures, led by Nowitzki’s 27, Jason Terry’s 25 and Josh Howard’s 23.

The Mavs played with the lead for most of the wildly-entertaining game, often up by double figures. Laker runs were often met with key 3-pointer (see: Jason Kidd, Terry or Nowitzki) or a steal leading to an easy fastbreak chance. Until the fourth quarter.

The Mavs weren’t done in by Kobe Bryant, though No. 24 milked the line in the fourth quarter and finished with 25 points. (He came into the game averaging better than 40 against the Mavs this season.) Instead, the combined 56 points from Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol hurt.

Should they meet again in a couple weeks, the series should provide its share of nail-biters. There wasn’t much separation between the two teams this season, with the four games decided by 17 points. The Mavs scored a seven-point win, while LA had a margins of four (overtime), two and four.

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