(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

First-round match-up? Possibly, and who would mind it? After getting embarrassed by Dallas in last season’s playoffs, the Lakers exacted (albeit less major in magnitude) some form of revenge in this regular season series sweep of the Mavericks. Don’t think for a minute that second round a year ago has dropped from the Lakers’ minds. Kobe Bryant never forgets, and neither do these Lakers. Despite playing without Bryant for the fifth game in a row, the Lakers have made their captain proud. It wasn’t a blowout today. It was, in fact, a difficult game to get through, but they got through it and it showed that this team has more fight than many naysayers would like to give them credit for.

Co-captain Pau Gasol, through three quarters, was just 3-8 from the field. Each time Andrew Bynum held the ball, he was wrapped tightly like a burrito by a tortilla that was the suffocating Dallas defense. Delonte West, who didn’t play in the first two contests between both teams, torched them in the first half and the Dallas threeball, despite ranking 21st in the league, continuously broke every run the Lakers attempted to make.

The home team didn’t look close to being awake in the first quarter, falling behind by as much as 10 points and shooting just 9-25 from the field. Dallas, feeling it at the onset, had a 27-point quarter on 52% shooting. The Lakers, however, picked it up in the second quarter. Despite allowing Dallas to shoot 58%, they stayed close by getting to the free throw line and converting 9-11.

After letting Dallas shoot as well as they did in the first half (55%), the Lakers tightened up their defense, with Bynum contesting every shot, regardless of who was shooting. When a blue uniform rose up for a shot, so too did Bynum’s long arms. And choosing to stop West’s first-half success was Metta World Peace.

The final quarter was a humdinger, if you will. After Ramon Sessions hit back-to-back shots late in the fourth, so too did Jason Terry. With the game tied at 98 points apiece, a last second (literally with 1.5 seconds left in regulation) shot by Nowitzki missed and the game was sent into overtime.

Outscored 14-10 in the final five minutes of the game, the Mavericks were sent home with a third loss in a row to the Lakers.

Turnovers – The Lakers had two more turnovers than the Mavericks but still, just eight gimmes in a game that went into overtime? That’s a huge accomplishment for a team who tends to give the ball away like Santa hands out presents on Christmas Day.
Free throws – The Lakers got to the line 27 times and converted 21. Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, for all their offensive struggles in this game (a combined 22-58), still managed to get to the charity stripe 19 times and hit 15 of them.
Points-in-the-Paint – 50-32 advantage – way to play to your strengths!
Glasswork – 52-42 for the game, plus the Lakers only allowed Dallas to six offensive rebounds despite the Mavericks missing 47 shots.
Andrew Bynum – Asked in an interview what he’s learned from Kobe Bryant, Bynum mentioned his captain’s “remarkable focus” in games, how he’s able to lock in mentally and physically, always seeming tireless in games. Today he took note of that and followed suit. Bynum was suffering from an upper respiratory infection today, and, after going 1-8 for the first quarter, could have acted out and checked out, but he instead maintained that focus he so admired in Bryant. After that first quarter struggle, he went 8-16 the rest of the way and did more than just score. He was a defensive presence,  closing off the paint to the penetration of a once-hot Delonte West and Jason Kidd, contesting shots and helping keep the Mavericks off the offensive glass. Bynum finished with 23 points, 16 rebounds and handed out two assists. He may not have blocked any attempts officially, but if there were a stat for altered shots, he would have dominated considerably.
Metta World Peace – Continuing with his excellent efforts, especially in Bryant’s absence, World Peace put in 18 points, six rebounds, handed out four assists and played some tough defense on a hot shooter. As Assistant Coach John Keuster said after the Lakers’ win against Denver on Friday, World Peace is always willing to take on the challenge of defending anybody and today his assignment was Delonte West in the second half. After scoring 16 points on an efficient 8-11 from the field, West went just two points on 1-4 the rest of the way. MWP was on him everywhere he turned. Often unable to even get a good look, West was forced to give the ball up. Along with that signature old school Ron Artest defense was some great work in the paint as well. Like Matt Barnes, MWP was keen on missed shots and scored on a few after grabbing the offensive board.
Ramon Sessions – This kid is looking more clutch by the game, and he always appears so calm that his impact is almost unnoticeable until you look at the box score. 22 points on 8-15 from the field, five assists, a steal and a singular turnover in just over 44 minutes of playing time. That’s excellent! Not throwing the ball to Bynum in the final seconds of regulation notwithstanding, Sessions is fast becoming a dependable source in tight games. He hit that three pointer against the Hornets in New Orleans that helped get a victory, and today he followed a three pointer with a floater late in the game to put the Lakers up by four points. Despite the strained shoulder, which is still wrapped up in a protected bracelike sleeve, Sessions is putting his all into helping this Lakers team win.
Pau Gasol – Through he first three quarters, it wasn’t difficult to wonder when Gasol would start to assert himself in this game. He’d gone just 3-8 from the field and 4-4 from the free throw line for his 10 points. Despite his eight rebounds and five assists at that point, we were still waiting for him to DO SOMETHING. He was just 1-4 in the final quarter, and then came overtime. Talk about saving your best for last. Gasol hit back-to-back corner threes, right in front of the Dallas bench and then hit both free throws to ice the game. Most importantly, he defended Dirk Nowitzki into a 9-28 kind of day, scored 20 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out five assists.
Matt Barnes – The most consistent Laker this season when it comes to effort, Barnes has truly made a name for himself, especially with the regular season winding down, for being that valuable sixth man off the bench who not only produces, but also injects life into this Laker team when needed, sometimes raising it a level or two. 11 points on 4-7, including 2-3 from downtown, 11 huge rebounds, eight assists (!) and a block for the day – what a great game for Barnes! Aside from the stacked box score, he was key late in the game. With the Lakers leading 97-96, Barnes had his moment defending Nowitzki and was no less than a pest that caused the German wonder to miss. Then in overtime, with Dallas trying to tie the game, Jason Terry drove in for a layup and was met by Barnes, whose mere presence in the air forced Terry to alter his shot, which missed. Terry hit the ground and covered his face – how could he have missed that? Barnes, that’s why. Whatever hole Lamar Odom left on the pine, Barnes has undoubtedly filled, and not just with his production, but his leadership as well.

Aside from Pau Gasol settling for too many jumpers, the low point that sticks out like a sore thumb today was the Lakers’ 3-point defense. Dallas went 12-21 from downtown. It hasn’t been the Lakers’ greatest skill to defend the three this season, but they’ve lost a few games by not rotating quickly enough or merely leaving shooters out there to kill them that by now, you’d think they’d learned. It was the Phoenix Suns and the Houston Rockets less than two weeks ago, and it almost looked like the Lakers would die by the Mavericks’ three today. Fortunately, that was not the case.

There are just five games left in the regular season, and the Lakers seem poised to enter the playoffs on a high note. And because of their excellent play, Coach Kobe Bryant hasn’t felt rushed to return from his injury.

Box Score