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Scott Howard-Cooper

Dirk Nowitzki, Ron Artest
The Lakers aren't tipping their hand, but they are considering putting Ron Artest on Dirk Nowitzki.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Defending Dirk: Lakers consider a one-on-one dream match

Posted May 4 2011 9:35AM

LOS ANGELES -- The topic first came up Monday evening, before Game 1, with the news that Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom would guard Dirk Nowitzki in a straight matchup of power forwards. The fledgling idea regained momentum Tuesday afternoon, following the Lakers' practice, until finally there was a bottom line from coach Phil Jackson.

Is it a possibility that Ron Artest will be moved to defend Dirk Nowitzki?

"Yes it is," Jackson replied.

This is where it gets good. It already was, the way the Mavericks regrouped to come from 16 points down in the third quarter to win the opener of the Western Conference semifinals on the road Monday. But now we're staring at the possibility of really good: Artest, knowing the Lakers' hopes for a threepeat may rest on his ability to contain Nowitzki, giving up about five inches in a showdown between one of the most-respected defenders in the league against one of the most-dangerous scorers.

"Dirk can play," Artest said. "But I'm definitely a better defender than guys on other teams that guard him. I would say I'm a better defender. I'm not going to say that he can't score, that I can hold him to zero points ... I mean, he hits jumpers over 7-footers anyway. But there's other things I could do to make that work in my advantage."

Artest has not been given any indication whether to bring a step ladder Wednesday night for Game 2 of the best-of-seven series at Staples Center. But Jackson said he hasn't made any decisions on countermoves in response to the Mavericks shooting 56.8 percent in the second half Monday to turn a 60-44 deficit a little more than a minute into the second half into a 96-94 victory. Nowitzki had 28 points, 11 in the fourth quarter, along with 14 rebounds.

The day after saying he planned to rely on Gasol and Odom, though, Jackson clearly seemed more open to the idea of small forward Artest getting heavy minutes in the matchup.

Maybe the shift comes in short bursts in hopes different looks will keep Nowitzki off balance, the way Kobe Bryant took smaller Chris Paul at the start of Game 2 in the first round after Paul out on a point-guard clinic in Game 1 of that series. Artest could switch back and forth between Nowitzki and Shawn Marion or Peja Stojakovic at small forward. Or the 6-foot-7 Artest could spend most of the night on 7-footer Nowitzki. Or the Lakers could stick with the Monday plan and rely mostly on power forwards Gasol and Odom.

"I've seen him guarded with shorter guys -- 6-5, 6-6, aggressive, quick, defensive players," Jackson said when the option was raised before Game 1. "I think they've probably been as effective as anybody. But I think that if you overcompensate for Dirk, you're going to end up allowing other people to get involved that can also spark this team."

Artest, twice voted first-team All-Defense by coaches and twice named to second-team, has had previous spot duty on Nowitzki, with the Lakers and in previous stops. Jackson undoubtedly knows Nowitzki scored less against Los Angeles compared to the rest of the league (22 vs. 23.1) and shot worse in the three regular-season meetings (46.3 percent vs. 52 percent against the 29 other opponents).

"I've practically seen it all in this league," Nowitzki said. "It is my 13th year. Teams have guarded me with smaller and they've guarded me with bigger. They've double-teamed me, from baseline, from top. I've got to be ready for everything. Sometimes I've got to go quick and not even wait on the double team. It's whatever. I can adjust. The good thing is, we've got a lot of shooters on the team that can spread the floor for me."

It's just that Nowitzki hasn't seen it in the conference semifinals against the two-time defending champions playing at home and trying to avoid going down 0-2 just before the series shifts to Dallas. This is where it gets good.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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