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Lakers vs. Mavericks, Game 4: The Trick Is To Keep Breathing

Laker fans are accustomed to hunkering down in front of the TV on Sunday afternoons in May to watch the purp and yellow do battle in the playoffs. Today, though, is more than a little different. If the champs lose, the season will be over, as will the magnificent coaching career of Phil Jackson. The collapse of the Lakers has happened with frightening speed. Most of us, I think, haven't really internalized the notion that the three-peat dream could end so quickly and ignominiously, with a sweep in the second round at the presumably sweaty hands of Mark Cuban.

But the Mavericks have no intention of waiting around for us. They've been fantastic in the playoffs and appear to be clearly better than the Lakers at this point. Their spacing, ball movement and shooting have been impeccable. They've refused to panic despite facing significant deficits in Games One and Three. And no one on the planet is playing as well as Dirk Nowitzki right now. I'd have no problem feeling happy for Dirk, who's always been kind of a thinking man's NBA superstar, if he weren't ruthlessly gutting a team near and dear to my heart.

The challenges facing the Lakers are legion. Some of them are tactical. They need to be more organized and disciplined in their pick-and-roll defense. They somehow need to both challenge shooters more aggressively and limit the Mavs' dribble penetration. On offense, they have to remember that Andrew Bynum is on the floor and is good at scoring points. Also, it would be great if they made a three-pointer every now and then. Frankly there's not much reason to think they've managed to figure this all out since the end of Game Three on Friday night.

And some of the challenges are psychological. Knowing that they're down three games to zip, do they have the will to keep fighting? They're saying all the right things, and no doubt when they take the court today they'll believe they have a shot to climb back into the series. But what if the Mavs go up eight in the second quarter? At what point does a Dallas victory start to feel like a fait accompli, assuming it doesn't already? As we've documented over at Silver Screen and Roll, when the Lakers lose in the playoffs, they lose ugly. For Phil's sake, if for no other reason, every Laker has to commit himself to playing this one out like a professional. Anyone who feels like quitting, well... we shan't soon forget or forgive.

A couple things to look for early on this afternoon:

1. Who's in the Lakers' starting lineup? In the absence of Ron Artest on Friday night, Phil started Lamar Odom alongside Bynum and Pau Gasol. The combination worked pretty well, and it wouldn't surprise to see Phil stick with it and bring Ron off the bench. I wouldn't mind seeing Gasol come off the bench instead - he needs something to jolt him out of his weirdly disengaged state - but I don't think Phil will get quite that daring.

2. What's the Lakers' approach on offense? Are they taking their time and getting the ball down on the blocks? Or are guys hoisting up jumpers early in possessions? The latter will be a sign that they've mentally checked out and are looking for shortcuts. If that's the case, steel yourself for a Mavs blowout.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.