In the wake of the Dallas Mavericks' deconstruction of the Los Angeles Lakers comes the inevitable question, should we have seen their victory coming?
I can claim no prognosticative powers here. I didn't think Dallas would lose to the Blazers, but that was due more to pessimism about Portland than optimism concerning the Mavericks. I didn't think the Mavericks had much of a chance against Los Angeles, and even tweeted, when the playoffs began, about the easy road the Lakers had to the Western Conference Finals. Why was I so wrong? I think there were three main factors.
The first factor was that I underestimated how good Dallas is. I saw a team that went 57-25 with a plus 4.2 point differential, which is good, but hardly elite. However, if you eliminate games missed by Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler, Dallas' two best players (JET's heroics nonwithstanding), that record becomes 52-13 with a point differential over 6, which is "best in the Western Conference" territory.
The second factor was that I bought into the Laker narrative. Sure, they had plenty of weaknesses, and they struggled against a weak Hornets team, but they could turn it on when they wanted to, right? I thought they were just too big and too talented to lose this way. It turns out that they were until they weren't. Like the Spurs-Suns sweep of last year, this series is a reminder of how relying on established narratives can become lazy and inaccurate without asking if the reasons behind those narratives are still valid, in this case L.A's particular matchup advantages that Dallas was able to neutralize.
The third factor was the matchups, and I have said in the past that Dallas matches up well against the Lakers, but I didn't realize just how true that was. The Lakers' biggest weakness has always been small, quick guards, and their biggest strength has been imposing size and skill up front. Dallas was uniquely poised to take advantage, with Jason Terry and J.J. Barea shredding their perimeter defense, and their own trio of 7 footers (Chandler, Nowitzki, Haywood) neutralizing the Lakers' biggest strength.
On the other side, Dallas' biggest weakness the past few years has been, like L.A., quick guards. Exhibit A was their loss to San Antonio last year in the playoff series that briefly fooled people into thinking George Hill was a potential star. The Lakers (or the Blazers, for that matter) had no one who could exploit this weakness. Bryant's game is built around guile and precision instead of speed, making him the one type of good player Jason Kidd can still guard, and Derek Fisher, Steve Blake, and Shannon Brown provide the Mavericks with three of the only NBA players Terry or Barea can guard without looking atrocious.
Why did the Lakers get to the NBA Finals three straight years? One of the biggest reasons was that it was extremely difficult to score inside against them, and when an opponent takes your most efficient shot away from you, disaster often ensues. Fortunately for them, the Mavericks' biggest strength has been scoring from the outside, which they were able to do with ease against the Lakers' lackluster perimeter defense.
Oh, and for some reason Pau Gasol played terribly. Otherwise this series goes 6 or 7, maybe with the Lakers winning anyway.