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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Beware the idleness of March Madness

NBA will fly under the radar for three weeks, but the Lakers have it under control.

March 16, 2009|MARK HEISLER | ON THE NBA

Goodbye for a while . . .

If the Ides of March had historic significance to the ancient Romans, who removed Julius Caesar from office and the rest of his life that day, it has another meaning in the NBA.

With the NCAA's Selection Sunday falling neatly on the holiday this season, it's the day the NBA goes behind the moon.

For the next three weeks, until April 6, the NBA will be eclipsed by the NCAA tournament . . . before reemerging, with the playoffs a week off!

For the Lakers, whose dog days started weeks ago when the rest of the West disappeared in their rearview mirror, the problem isn't being knocked off, but dying of boredom.

So nobody should be surprised that they blew a 15-point, third-quarter lead over the desperate Dallas Mavericks on Sunday and fell six points behind in the fourth, before scoring 18 of the last 23 points to win, 107-100.

As Coach Phil Jackson said, "We felt so comfortable in the game, we didn't turn up the anxiety level high enough at that point."

He means he was thankful they stayed awake that long, and reawakened in time to do something about it.

With the Lakers at No. 1 in the Western Conference and Dallas No. 8, they would meet in the first round if the season were over.

Unfortunately, the season isn't over, as both coaches noted, pooh-poohing questions about a matchup that might not take place.

Jackson, being Phil Jackson, was still willing to discuss the Mavericks with the usual candor, from their no-longer-as-potent offense ("They're pretty much relegated to two scorers, where they used to have that third guy") to their no-longer-as-tough defense.

"They're a little bit more susceptible, I think, just due to age, in defensive speed and quickness," Jackson said.

"And I think that's maybe the difference between the team two years ago that won 67 games."

That's the great thing about Phil. Playoff matchup or no, he's always in Zing Mode.

Of course, with the Mavericks, you get indefatigable owner Mark Cuban, who has fenced publicly with Jackson for years, although they've never encountered each other in the playoffs.

With no more provocation that the regular season afforded, Jackson once complained that Cuban intimidates referees -- which Cuban says couldn't be further from the truth, if not for lack of trying.

Cuban replied that Jackson's complaint meant "I own him," and Phil was his "bucket boy."

Sunday, Cuban's bucket boy noted Cuban's courtside effect on his players.

"I think it's definitely something you have to get used to," Jackson said. "He's going to be a rooter and a supporter and probably critique too.

"I think it's very difficult for players to get used to. Once they're in the mix, I think they develop a thick skin and it's OK."

And Cuban's effect on his coach?

"I don't think I could work under those conditions," Jackson said. "You guys [media] are bad enough with the critiques."

I didn't get a chance to relay Jackson's comments to Cuban, but I did ask him if he was ready to go mano a mano with Jackson in the first round.

"I like Phil," Cuban said. "I like Jeanie [Buss] better."

Then, of course, both coaches went out and started to look for things that would work if they met in the postseason.

Like Trevor Ariza guarding Jason Kidd.

In the 1991 Finals, Jackson's Chicago Bulls tag-teamed Magic Johnson, with Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan pressing him full-court, trying to tire him out.

The Bulls won, 4-1, holding Johnson to 18.6 points a game and 35% from the field.

Meanwhile, Dallas' Rick Carlisle tried a zone defense, confounding the Lakers, allowing the Mavericks to go from 15 points down with 5:58 left in the third quarter to six points ahead with 7:09 left in the game.

As Jackson noted, his players, who shot 63% on three-pointers in the first half, looked at the zone "as an invitation to shoot more threes. And it was. And they didn't go in."

Nevertheless, it's still nice to have a team that can nod off, awaken and squash an opponent that started the day on a 50-win pace like a bug.

"They're a machine, even without [Andrew] Bynum," Carlisle said before the game.

"They're underrated in terms of the effort they play at. If you watch their games, they get the majority of the loose balls on the floor.

"I think there's a tendency, because it's the L.A. Lakers, and because it's L.A., you view them as talented with a lot of skill and all that stuff, but these guys play hard."

Of course, with the Nos. 3-8 teams in the West bunched within 2 1/2 games, who's to say Dallas will be No. 8?

Let's say it's the team with the worst home loss/road win ratio. In that case, it could be . . .

Portland.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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