DALLAS -- With a facial expression completely void of sincerity, Mark Cuban said a playoff series between the Mavericks and Lakers -- which would undoubtedly feature daily verbal jousting between Cuban and Phil Jackson -- would be lacking in off-the-court entertainment.
"You guys would be expecting it," Cuban said of the media. "It's only interesting when you don't expect it."
Cuban had it half right. The constant barbs would be expected but they would also be interesting. They would be clever and humorous with a distinct possibility of becoming pointed and nasty.
The basketball would also be good. The Lakers are the two-time defending champions and they still have the best player in the world in Kobe Bryant. The Mavericks very possibly have their best team since the franchise was formed in 1980. They are old with seven players in their 30s, but they have a deep bench with veteran talent and hardly missed a beat when they lost forward Caron Butler to a knee injury in January.
The two met for the second time this season Saturday night and the Lakers ended a challenging four-game road trip with a 96-91 victory on the Mavericks' home court. That evened the season series at 1-1 with one more meeting scheduled in Los Angeles on March 31. The Lakers won despite only 16 points from Bryant, who continued to have shooting problems Saturday despite his much-vaunted 75-minute shooting session after the loss Thursday in Miami. Bryant was 6-of-20 from the field and had to leave the game late in the third quarter with a sprained ankle. He returned, however, midway through the fourth quarter.
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The Lakers (47-20) moved to within a half-game of overtaking the Mavericks (47-19) for second place in the West and home-court advantage for a potential second-round series, and they have a schedule far more favorable than the Mavericks.
The Mavericks have only seven of 16 at home and have a six-game road trip ahead. But maybe they are not frightened by the road, where they are tied for the best record in the NBA at 23-9.
Like the Spurs last week, the Mavericks learned Saturday that countering the Lakers' big men inside is a little like chopping redwoods. Andrew Bynum, now completely healthy, led the Lakers with 22 points and 15 rebounds -- the eighth time in the last 10 games he has had double-digit rebounds. Pau Gasol, the Lakers' other 7-footer, had 18 points and five rebounds.
The Mavericks have height with three 7-footers -- Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood. But 7-0, 235-pound Chandler, the primary defender against Bynum, gives up 50 pounds to the 23-year-old, 285-pound center.
"Chandler is a great defensive player," Jackson said. "He just doesn't have the size to contend with the size of Andrew. Andrew is a strong, powerful young man and his size is overwhelming."
If the Mavericks and Lakers do meet in the playoffs, it would be a first in the Cuban-Jackson era. The taunts exchanged by the two are without the benefit of even one playoff series since Cuban bought the team during 1999-00, the same season that Jackson first coached the Lakers. Each team has been excellent. Dallas will win 50 or more games for the 11th consecutive season while the Lakers have won five titles since 2000. The Mavericks, however, have been inconsistent in the playoffs. In the last seven years, they have lost four times in the first round.
|If the Mavs and Lakers meet in the playoffs, it will be a first in the Cuban-Jackson era. (Getty Images)|
Cuban and Jackson offered a preview of what a playoff series might sound like on Saturday. Jackson actually started in on Cuban on Friday at a practice in Dallas when he said he wanted the Lakers to win the home-court advantage for a possible second-round series so that Cuban would be deprived of a fourth home game in a 7-game series.
The Mavericks owner responded Saturday by referring to Jackson's promise to retire after the season. "The reality is," Cuban said, "he doesn't want the poetic justice of [a playoff loss] being his last game here in Dallas before he retires."
That was merely fun stuff that resembled Cuban once referring the relationship between the Lakers' coach and Jeanie Buss, the owner's daughter, by calling Jackson a "boy toy." Considering Jackson is now 65 years old, he likely considers Cuban's comment high praise.
"I'm trying to be a friend of Mark's," Jackson said, "because Charlie Sheen and I want to be on a show together."
Cuban recently said he'd like to create a TV program on his HD network for the deposed TV star.
"We'll call it 'Two and 3/4 men,'" Cuban said. "Or "Two Men and a 7-footer."
The potential for something far more fierce between the two was also evident, however. Jackson referred to the trouble Cuban had in 2006 when he was fined $250,000 by the league for "several acts of misconduct" after a Mavericks loss to the Miami Heat. Dallas had won the first two games of the series, but then lost four straight and the title. Cuban became incensed after a Game 5 loss and even had a stare down with NBA commissioner David Stern, who then had the last word with the fine.
"In that Miami series, he definitely had it coming that time," Jackson said. "But I think he's toned it down in the last few years. I think that Miami finals really was a tough one to swallow. I think [Dwyane] Wade averaged about 25 foul shots a game after the second game and you couldn't even touch him. That was really tough for [Cuban] to swallow and I think he understood that there's sort of a pecking order in this league and you need to keep your mouth shut at times."
Of course, when asked if he had learned that lesson, Jackson said: "Never."
Cuban would not respond to Jackson's comment about the Heat series, saying he had already sent enough money to the league. Cuban said he was content to play the straight man to Jackson, comparing the two to the legendary comedy team of straight-man Dean Martin and funny-man Jerry Lewis.
"Phil's the original one," Cuban said. "I'll just play off his lead. He's Lewis; I'm Martin."
The two men can argue roles, but there is one certainty in their future. If their teams meet in the playoffs, it's going to be quite a show.