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ALL IT TOOK WAS ONE GAME—ONE HALF, REALLY—FOR KOBE BRYANT TO sense the change. Dallas may have been the older team, but these weren't the same old Mavericks. "This team can beat us," the Lakers' star said after Los Angeles dropped Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals 96--94. "It's clear." Was it ever. With the Mavericks soaring highest at the ends of games, the series would prove to have a most unflattering outcome for the two-time defending champion Lakers, who lost their composure in a stunning sweep. It was an embarrassing final chapter for coach Phil Jackson, a dud of a retirement gift from his conference foe.
In the final quarter of Game 4, Dirk Nowitzki was the victim of an unsportsmanlike hip-check from Los Angeles forward Lamar Odom, and shortly after an airborne J.J. Barea took a vicious elbow to the rib cage from Andrew Bynum that knocked Barea to the floor. Yet while Dallas's 122--86 win in the finale provided a low moment for a franchise so accustomed to living the high life, Bryant and the Lakers had their moment of clarity midway through the third quarter of the opener.
Los Angeles held a 60--44 lead, which in years past would have been enough to bury Nowitzki and his Mavericks—along with many other playoff teams. But Dallas exuded a newfound resiliency, never mind that the game was at Staples Center, where the Mavs had lost 18 of their previous 22 games.
Nowitzki hit a jumper and a foul shot to start it all, and Dallas needed less than five minutes to cut the lead to three. The Mavs kept it close throughout the fourth quarter, and with 20 seconds left Pau Gasol made contact with Nowitzki as he attempted to catch an inbounds pass. The Dallas forward hit two free throws to give the Mavericks the lead at last, 95--94, and then Jason Kidd sunk another to end it.
Dallas would pretty much stay on target for the rest of the series. Nowitzki (24 points) led the way again in Game 2, a 93--81 win in which the Mavs never trailed in the second half. Bryant (23 points, five steals) did his part, but Gasol, with 13 points and 10 rebounds, did not and drew boos from the L.A. crowd. Not only was Dallas going home with a 2--0 series lead, but the Lakers would also be without small forward Ron Artest, after he drew a one-game suspension for clotheslining Barea in the closing seconds of Game 2.
Given the way Dallas played down the stretch in Game 3, however, Artest's presence might have mattered little. Trailing by seven with five minutes to go in the game, the Mavericks closed on a 20--7 run to win 98--92 and take a 3--0 series lead. Nowitzki again started the surge, with a three-pointer, and key threes by Peja Stojakovic and Jason Terry, as well as Kidd's determined defense on Bryant, ensured the win.
No late-game heroics were needed in Game 4, Dallas's most dominant performance of the series, a 36-point rout in which Terry tied a playoff record by hitting nine of the team's 20 three-pointers.
Yes, these 2011 Mavericks could beat L.A. all right. In fact, they handed the defending champions a more thorough defeat than anyone, even the mindful Bryant, could have imagined.