If anyone can pull off the Hollywood ending, it's the Lakers

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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DALLAS -- In the mystical world inhabited by Phil Jackson, the absurd sometimes makes perfect sense. It appears that prolonged exposure to Jackson has had an impact on Kobe Bryant, who somehow found the bright side of losing two home playoff games.

"Kobe said to me that 'It seems right that this is the kind of way your last season should be,' " Jackson said before Game 3 of the Lakers-Mavericks series Friday. " 'Something like this comes up and it's another hurdle you have to cross.' "

On Friday night, the hurdle grew exponentially. If Jackson has visions of winning a third consecutive title and his 12th overall in what he has said will be his final season as a head coach, it would not only be his most dramatic, but also the greatest comeback in NBA history.

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The Lakers were again a unit that seemed focused only periodically and one of those times was not at the end of the game. The result was a 98-92 victory by the Mavericks, who now have a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 will be played Sunday afternoon in Dallas.

"We're disappointed," Jackson said. "We feel like in Games 1 and 3, we controlled the pace of the game and just couldn't finish the game off. They were better at finishing the games than we were, so that's a big disappointment to us. But we still believe we're going to win the next game and we'll go from there."

If the Lakers are to prolong the series, they will have to stop getting in their own way. The Mavericks have quietly built perhaps the best team in their history. They are confident, with a deep bench and they have a transcendent superstar in Dirk Nowitzki, who carried them throughout the game.

Nowitzki scored 32 points while the rest of the starting lineup had only 24. After a slow start, the Mavericks bench heated up with 20 points in the last period and finished the game with a 42-15 advantage on the Lakers.

But the Lakers have furnished their own distractions in the series. Center Andrew Bynum said the Lakers lacked trust in each other after Game 2. Ron Artest, who received the NBA's Citizenship Award 10 days earlier, was suspended for a game for mugging Dallas guard J.J. Barea in the closing seconds of Game 2.

Then Friday night, Jackson actually thumped Pau Gasol in the chest while chewing him out for sloppy play.

"He grabbed the ball in the half-court and he wasn't aware," Jackson said. "He was holding in it in a position that we always ask him not to put it in and [Jason] Terry took it from him and went down and got a layup. So I was just making sure that he would take care of the basketball in those sequences."

Added to the Lakers problems was undistinguished play by Gasol, who averaged 18.8 points in the regular season but has averaged only 13.3 against Dallas. Gasol was 5-of-13 from the field with 12 points and eight rebounds Friday.

"Obviously he wants me to be more aggressive and more assertive out there," Gasol said. "So I've just got to be able to do that better. I really haven't been able to get going at all so I just have to snap out of it so I can do my part."

Gasol shrugged when asked if he was surprised Jackson would strike him, even though it was a soft blow.

"He wants to win," Gasol said. "He wants to win as bad as anybody. So I'm not surprised."

In Bryant, the Lakers have one of the great finishers and clutch players in NBA history, but he never seemed to even try and take over Friday. At times, he was guarded by Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd, who is one of the strongest guards in the league but still three inches shorter than Bryant.

But Bryant finished the game with only 17 points and had four rebounds and six assists. He got in early foul trouble, picking up two in the first seven minutes of the game, but still played 38 minutes.

With all of their other problems, a non-dominating Bryant was the final piece in the Lakers' failure.

While the Lakers have been playing without their characteristic aggression, the Mavericks have been playing with focus and determination. They have the reputation as being soft, but in reality, their shortcomings have always been more mental than physical.

But the team that lost in the first round for three of the last four years has not been seen in this series. The Mavericks dominated Game 2, but in the first and third games, they trailed in the fourth quarter and still rallied to win.

On Friday, they were eight points behind with less than seven minutes left but made clutch play after clutch play. Nowitzki took Gasol to the basket twice, scoring once and getting fouled the other time. He made both free throws.

Kidd directed traffic, once faking a pass that sent Derek Fisher out of bounds and then completing the pass behind him. Kidd made only 3 of 12 shots for 11 points, but he had nine assists. While it would be an exaggeration to suggest he stopped Bryant, Kidd was aggressive and forced Bryant to work on offense.

Terry, who had 23 points, scored seven in the last 2:01 to finish the Lakers.

"Dirk Nowitzki made it happen," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "Just about everything that happened down the stretch was a direct result of him either scoring the ball or making a play to get somebody a shot or make a pass for an assist, for a 3, or a two or whatever is was."

It has been written so often that it is a cliché, but it is true -- no team in NBA history has come back to win a series after losing the first three games. It certainly would be a storybook ending for Jackson's career if the Lakers were somehow able to do that. But the Lakers are in such a condition that in Game 4, they not only have to beat the Mavericks, but they also have to overcome themselves.

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