When the Los Angeles Lakers (27-29) take on the Dallas Mavericks (25-29) Sunday afternoon in the American Airlines Center, the mainstream excitement over two teams currently not in the Western Conference playoffs is through the roof.
The Lakers and Mavericks are fighting to make the postseason and sit 3.5 and 4.5 games back respectively behind the current eighth seed, the Houston Rockets.
At this point of the season, every win is huge and every loss hurts even more.
Both Dallas and Los Angeles can still make the playoffs this year whether they win or lose Sunday, but the victor of this rivalry game will have momentum on their side leading into the regular-season homestretch.
Where: American Airlines Center, Dallas
When: Sunday, Feb. 24 at 1 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NBA League Pass
Betting Line: Not available as of Saturday, Feb. 23, 9:20 a.m. ET
Injuries (via CBSSports)
Earl Clark, SF, Questionable for Feb. 24 at Dallas
Pau Gasol, PF, Out until at least late March
Jordan Hill, PF, Out for season
Chris Kaman, C, Questionable for Feb. 24 vs. Los Angeles
Key Storyline: Mark Cuban Angers the Sleeping Giant
There was already a healthy rivalry between Los Angeles and Dallas, but if the fight for a chance to make the postseason wasn’t enough to get the competitive juices flowing for these teams, Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban has ensured a bit of bad blood Sunday with his recent comments.
According to a report from ESPN, Cuban made an appearance on ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM and spoke about how the Lakers could amnesty Kobe Bryant in the offseason:
If you look at their payroll, even if Dwight (Howard) comes back, you've got to ask the question: Should they amnesty Kobe? You just don't know, right? It's the same reason I wouldn't get rid of Dirk (Nowitzki). I'll take a hit for a season rather than get rid of Dirk. That's just it. I've made that commitment to him over the years, and he's returned that commitment. Maybe that's selfish, but that's just the way it is.
So I'm just saying that hypothetically. When I say amnesty Kobe, I don't think they'd do it, but they've got some choices to make. Now, they're in a big market, but they're still limited. The Knicks, the same thing. Boston, same thing.
While most believe that Cuban was just candidly responding to the questions he was being asked like he always does, the Lakers organization has publicly addressed these comments (h/t ESPN), further fueling the heat on both teams to perform Sunday.
The added storyline intrigue from Cuban’s comments will be something all NBA fans must watch in this afternoon matinee.
Key Matchup: O.J. Mayo vs. Kobe Bryant
There is no doubting just how talented the veteran shooting guard Kobe Bryant still is even at 34 years old, and the 40 points he scored against the Portland Trail Blazers Friday night proved just how dangerous the Black Mamba could be.
The key for the Mavericks Sunday afternoon will be O.J. Mayo and how he defends the Lakers’ biggest offensive threat. While Mayo wasn’t the two-way star many expected in Memphis with the Grizzlies, his resurgence in Dallas is great for the Mavericks’ chances of making the postseason in 2013.
Mayo is logging major minutes at shooting guard (35.9 minutes per game), and he will be assigned to keep Bryant in check despite the hot hand he showed Friday. Neither man will back down in this one-on-one matchup, and this intense battle has the potential to become a physical showdown.
These teams must make the playoffs to avoid offseason chaos, and how Mayo guards Kobe Sunday afternoon will depict which team takes one step closer to the Promised Land.
Predicted Starting Lineups
Metta World Peace, SF
Earl Clark, SF
Steve Nash, PG
Kobe Bryant, SG
Dirk Nowitzki, PF
Shawn Marion, SF
Bernard James, C
Darren Collison, PG
O.J. Mayo, SG
Prediction: Los Angeles Lakers 99, Dallas Mavericks 96
Both the Mavericks and the Lakers will have clear positional advantages and disadvantages on the court Sunday, but it will be the team that can exploit mismatches the most that walks away with the victory.
No Pau Gasol in the lineup gives Dallas the advantage at power forward with Nowitzki, but Bryant taking on Mayo gives Los Angeles the advantage at shooting guard. Small forward is a push between Shawn Marion and Metta World Peace, but the Lakers have a distinct advantage at point guard and center.
With All-Stars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash manning those two positions and utterly outclassing their competition Sunday against the Mavericks, it will be the Lakers that squeeze out a hard-fought win on the road.