The Los Angeles Lakers will have to pick on somebody their own size to make it to another Western Conference finals.
For all of Kobe Bryant's brilliance, the Lakers' back-to-back title runs were built on the defensive dominance and offensive mismatches created by their two 7-footers, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Few teams can match Los Angeles' sheer size when 6-10 Lamar Odom is in the mix, and even fewer can overcome it in the paint.
But their second-round opponent is the Dallas Mavericks, whose roster is stacked with three talented 7-footers: Tyson Chandler, Brendan Haywood and superstar Dirk Nowitzki. Although the Mavs do different things with their size, Gasol knows the Lakers probably won't push anybody around in the next two weeks.
Gasol is facing a long series keeping up with Nowitzki -- and hopefully forcing Dirk to keep up with him.
"We always have an advantage inside, as far as our size and our skills, (but) we just have to work to make it work," Gasol said Saturday after the Lakers' extra-long practice at their training complex. "I expect a physical series, because that's what it's going to take. I don't know about the chippiness, but I'm sure there's going to be physical plays."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson emphasized what his club should expect from the series by tucking a photograph of a huge longhorn steer inside his players' game plans.
Indeed, beef will be a key when the Lakers attempt to play from the inside out in this meeting of two perennial playoff teams that somehow haven't run into each other in the postseason since 1988.
Nowitzki and Gasol have a healthy mutual respect after several years of regular meetings, including two games won by the Lakers in the last six weeks of the regular season. Gasol praises Nowitzki as a unique player with his famed mix of size and delicate shooting touch, while Nowitzki is impressed by Gasol's offensive versatility and passing skills.
"They've got a bunch of guys that can score," Nowitzki said. "That's why they're one of the deepest teams, especially the front line. Gasol is long. He's been working on his mid-range shot. He can (shoot with) both hands, and he's a great scorer on the block. So yeah, I've got to play both ends of the floor in this series. I've got to be ready."
Game 1 at Staples Center is Monday night, giving both teams an extra day to recover from draining six-game victories in the first round. The Lakers bounced back from a series-opening loss to New Orleans, while Dallas won two straight after blowing a 23-point lead in Game 4 against Portland.
"We improved," Bryant said. "We had a couple of setbacks, but that was more due to Chris Paul."
Bryant also sprained his left ankle in Game 4, but came back with two strong efforts on his remarkably tenacious joints. Bryant shrugged off any worries about his ankle Saturday, but Jackson said the injury "still affects him a lot."
"This is not going to go away any time soon," Jackson added. "He'll have a limited amount of practice, so we have to put him in the best positions to help."
The Mavericks paid close attention to Paul's success on pick-and-roll plays for the Hornets. The play is a standard approach for most Los Angeles opponents, although the Lakers' defense on the play improved during the first-round series.
"You've got to be able to move that front line, I think," Nowitzki said. "That's not a secret. If you just pound it on the strong side, they're very good, they're very long. (Ron) Artest is very long, Kobe, for (a shooting guard), is very long, and, obviously, that front line. So we've got to be able to move them some, and then penetrate them. That's not a secret."
Gasol doesn't possess Nowitzki's outside shooting skills, but he's a remarkably resourceful scorer who can shoot with either hand. Nowitzki sometimes struggles on offense when he's forced to work extra hard on defense, and the Lakers are counting on Gasol and Odom to keep Nowitzki busy.
"Both of them are highly skilled, both of them are All-Stars, and both of them are at the top of their games, so it's a great matchup," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "We'll have other guys guarding Gasol as well. It's not just going to be Dirk."
Carlisle wants his inside defenders to keep the ball away from Gasol and Bynum in the low post. Bynum was particularly effective down low against the Hornets, helping to get Emeka Okafor into near-constant foul trouble, and Carlisle realizes the Mavs can't afford the same problems for Chandler.
"We had success in the last series because we were able to guard our positions," Carlisle said. "We did little, if any, double-teaming. This series might be a little different because of the magnitude of some of their star players, but as much as possible, we have to guard our position and take that challenge. That's a big key to success in playoff basketball."