After the Dallas Mavericks swept them out of last year's postseason, the Los Angeles Lakers now could return the favor. Doing it without Kobe Bryant might further build their confidence for a potential playoff rematch.
While coach Mike Brown will return, Bryant is unlikely to get back in action as the surging Lakers go for a season sweep of the defending NBA champions Sunday at Staples Center.
The offseason trade of Lamar Odom to the Mavericks appeared to further turn the tide against Los Angeles in this rivalry, but that deal was a bust - Dallas says Odom won't play again this season - and the Lakers have won all three meetings.
A Lakers sweep wouldn't be nearly as shocking as the Mavericks needing only four games to oust Los Angeles in the Western Conference semifinals last May. That could have signaled the end of Bryant's Lakers being a true title contender, particularly with them trailing the Clippers in the Pacific Division for much of this season, but they've gone 15-6 since March 8 to regain first place.
That leaves Los Angeles (38-22) as the No. 3 seed in the West, and Dallas (34-26) currently is sixth. If the Mavs and Lakers remain in those spots, they would meet to open the playoffs.
Los Angeles just hopes Bryant is fully healthy by then. He's missed the last four games with a bruised shin and even though he is no longer wearing a protective boot, Brown said Saturday that the NBA scoring leader is likely to take another game off.
The Lakers were blown out by Phoenix in their first game without Bryant but have won the last three, including one at Southeast Division-leading San Antonio.
"When we play hard and when we play well as a team, a lot of good things happen for us," said Pau Gasol, who has a combined 51 points in the last two meetings with Dallas after averaging 12.5 in last year's playoff series.
"With or without Kobe, that's something that's standard for this team."
Gasol's team returned home Friday and defeated Denver 103-97, clinching a playoff spot despite Brown's absence due to personal reasons.
"You can tell that these guys went out tonight and wanted to represent Mike Brown as best they could and that's what they did," said assistant John Kuester, who took over for Brown.
Andrew Bynum scored 30 points, two nights after grabbing 30 rebounds against the Spurs. He's averaging 23.7 points and 13.7 boards over the past six games.
Also stepping up lately are Metta World Peace, averaging 18.0 points over the past five games, and Matt Barnes, who is 17 of 24 from the field in the last three and scored a season-best 24 on Friday.
"With Kobe out, guys need to step up, but at the same time, not do too much," Barnes said. "We're playing good team basketball right now."
So are the Mavericks, who have had at least five double-figure scorers during their current three-game win streak.
No more than three Dallas players reached double digits in any of this season's meetings with Los Angeles, and the Mavs shot a combined 39.3 percent from the field.
"Right now, you just have to pile up 'W's.' I don't care how you get them; you just have to get them," said Shawn Marion, who had 17 points and 14 rebounds in Friday's 97-94 win at Portland.
Marion helped limit Bryant to 29 points on 11-of-37 shooting through the first two meetings - Dallas lost by a combined eight points - but he missed the last one as Bryant scored 30 in the Lakers' easy 109-93 win March 21. Without Bryant around this time, that leaves Marion to focus on World Peace or Barnes.