Lakers’ defensive aggression works against them as Luka Dončić, Mavericks pick them apart

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DALLAS — There was inevitably going to be a letdown after the high of winning the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament.

Typically, champions have a few months off after they celebrate a title. For the Los Angeles Lakers, it was only two days.

Their return came against the league’s third-best offense — after just facing the NBA’s best in the Indiana Pacers — and one of its toughest players to contain given his rare blend of size, skill, strength and tempo. For as great as Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton has been this season, Dallas Mavericks star Luka Dončić is an entirely different beast. To compound matters, the Lakers were without Jarred Vanderbilt, who was ruled out before the game due to back spasms that have bothered him since Saturday’s IST championship game.

Against Dallas, the Lakers continued their recent trend of defending aggressively, attempting to dictate the terms of engagement. They mixed up their coverages, blitzing, switching and playing up to touch against Dončić in the pick-and-roll.

But nothing worked. Dončić sliced and diced them to the tune of 33 points and 17 assists as the Mavericks defeated the Lakers 127-125 at American Airlines Center. The loss dropped Los Angeles to 14-10 and snapped their four-game win streak (including their championship victory over Indiana, which does not count in the regular-season standings).

Ultimately, the Lakers decided they would do everything to prevent Dončić from beating them, as they’ve done to elite scorers and ballhandlers in recent weeks. They had a ton of success with a similar defensive strategy last week against both Phoenix and Indiana. But part of their success in those games stemmed from a calculated gamble that they could force the ball into the right players’ hands and trust that the numbers would work out in their favor.

That did not happen Tuesday, as the Mavericks, playing without several key players (Kyrie Irving, Derrick Jones Jr., Josh Green and Maxi Kleber, as well as Seth Curry in the second half), made 21 of their 43 3-pointers. The total included a career-high seven made 3s from Dante Exum — a 28.6 percent 3-point shooter entering Tuesday’s game — including five in the fourth quarter alone.

Defense at this level and this league, it’s more than trying to take things away from people,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “What also goes hand in hand with that is what you’re willing to live with. And in an attempt to put extra bodies in front of Luka, you just decide who you’re going to play a little bit heavier off of. … And you go by the numbers and trends, what’s been happening up to this point in the season, and those numbers told us that Dante could be a heavy shift guy. But he’s a pro. He’s a hell of a player.

“And tonight was his night. It’s a make-or-miss league, and he happened to make them.”

As was the case when these two teams matched up last month in Los Angeles, the Lakers fell behind quickly and trailed by as many as 15 points in the second half. They then roared back, leading by two entering the fourth after Anthony Davis made just his fourth 3-pointer of the season (and first since Oct. 29). The score was tied at 108 with 6:40 remaining before the Mavericks outscored the Lakers 19-13 in the remaining competitive portion of the game. (Los Angeles scored four late points to make the final score appear closer.)

The Lakers’ three best players all exceeded 20 points. Davis had 37 points and 11 rebounds. LeBron James had 33 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. Sixth man Austin Reaves chipped in with 22 points. But the rest of the group was largely quiet, aside from Taurean Prince, who scored 15 points on five 3s. Meanwhile, the Mavericks got a season-high 32 points from Tim Hardaway Jr., 26 from Exum and 19 from Grant Williams in support of Dončić.

Exum’s outlier shooting, in particular, was a notable postgame topic. The seeds for his fourth-quarter performance were planted in the first half, as his confidence began to build with two made 3-pointers toward the end of the shot clock.

On the first one, D’Angelo Russell was switched onto Dončić, who waved off an Exum ball screen to isolate Russell and draw in James. With the shot clock dwindling and James sagging off Exum at the elbow, Dončić fired a leading pass to set up Exum. James played Exum for the drive instead of the shot, only contesting Exum’s wide-open 3 after the ball was released.

Luka’s a problem,” Davis said. “We wanted to take the ball out of his hands, and their role players did a good job of making shots.”

On this play in the fourth quarter, Dončić awaited a screen from Williams, who had already hit five 3s by this point. The Lakers pre-switched Rui Hachimura onto Williams, with James replacing him and taking Exum. Dereck Lively II followed Williams with a second screen for Dončić, causing James to retreat to help on Lively’s roll. That left Exum open again, and while James closed more quickly this time, he still didn’t bother to contest Exum’s shot in time.

“No,” James said when asked if the Lakers should’ve considered changing their strategy. “You have a game plan, and you live with the results. Dante had a career night from the 3-point line, and you tip your hat.”

Later in the fourth quarter, the Lakers got stuck with Hachimura switching onto Dončić. The Mavericks’ star got past Hachimura, collapsing the Lakers’ defense. Reaves, the defender on the opposite side, took a couple of steps over in case he needed to help, providing all the space Dončić needed to find Exum in the corner. Reaves closed harder than James did on prior plays but still stopped short of fully respecting Exum’s shot. After this make, the Lakers were never within three points until James’ meaningless 3 at the buzzer.

A similar play occurred a minute later. Reaves was switched onto Dončić this time, causing Hachimura to take a step over to protect on a drive and thus leave Exum alone in the right corner again. Dončić turned and bounced the ball back to Exum, and Hachimura leapt straight up with a Luke Kornet-style contest from afar (it’s become a Hachimura trademark as well). It didn’t work, as Exum rattled in his sixth 3 and fourth of the quarter.

By the time of Exum’s backbreaker 3 in the final minute, smoke was coming out of his ears. With Hachimura on Dončić – the Mavericks targeted the Lakers’ forward down the stretch – Prince rotated over to try to trap, but Dončić evaded it by kicking the ball back to Hardaway, who had James on him. Hardaway blew by James, drew the help from Reaves and zipped the ball to Exum, open in the same spot from which he already drilled a couple of 3s. With no Laker within 10 feet of him, Exum iced the game.

“It’s tough,” Davis said. “It’s what you want. You want to make the other guys beat you, and they made shots tonight. Hat’s off to them. Tough one.”

A sub-30-percent 3-point shooter having a career night is going to randomly happen throughout an 82-game season. At the same time, the Lakers should’ve respected Exum more once he had heated up, because at that point, the overall numbers aren’t nearly as relevant as what’s happening on the floor in this game. The Lakers switched too easily onto Dončić — there were instances in which Prince and Reddish, Dončić’s two primary defenders, could’ve stayed on him — and left shooters too aggressively. Few players in the NBA force a defense into difficult decisions like Dončić, but the Lakers can learn a valuable lesson from this game that they can apply when in parallel situations in the future.

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Despite the Lakers’ shoddy defense by their standard, they still had a chance to win. But their deficit at the 3-point (minus-18) and free-throw lines (minus-6) and opponent points off turnovers (minus-13) were the ultimate differences. The Lakers scored 62 points in the paint and shot 54.8 percent on 2-pointers. That’s a winning formula on most nights, but not when the opponent is that proficient from 3.

“People shooting the ball that well, sometimes even against great defense, it’s hard to control that,” Ham said. “But what we can control, though, is not allowing them to get 12 free-throw attempts in the first quarter and 24 points off our 15 turnovers. So that is what it is. Those are things we can control: just showing our hands defensively, not fouling with ticky-tack fouls, getting and pushing them to the bonus, and definitely better ball security.”

Looking ahead to Wednesday’s back-to-back in San Antonio, the Lakers aren’t sure if they’re going to have Davis, who exited the game at the 1:53 mark of the second quarter due to his ongoing hip injury. He returned for the second half and seemed fine, for the most part.

“Day-to-day, seeing how it feels,” Davis said. “Tonight, just test it out in pregame. Felt good. Had some moments in the game where I felt it, kinda tweaked it again, but just seeing how it feels going forward. Each and every game, a day at a time. Make decisions from there.”

Davis revealed he thought he “was past the hurdle” of his injury after being pain-free since the Cleveland game on Nov. 25. But after tweaking his hip on Saturday, he’s had discomfort.

“They say to keep getting treatment, keep trying to get it to feel good to keep it feeling good,” Davis said. 

Ham said Davis has been pushing through the injury recently and would be reevaluated by the team’s medical staff after Tuesday’s game. The status of Davis, James and Vanderbilt is unclear for San Antonio. James added he’ll know his status once he wakes up Wednesday morning.

“It’s all by ear,” Ham said. “We get whole and it looks so beautiful in Vegas. And then we have some unfortunate news with Vando having a few back spasms. A, we want to make sure he’s OK as well. Bron obviously just managing his minutes and the totality of the workload he’s carrying. So we’ll have updates on all those guys definitely by tomorrow.”

The Spurs just set a franchise record with their 17th straight loss. The Lakers play them again on Friday, providing them two opportunities to close this week out strong. It’s the perfect opportunity for the Lakers to regroup and realize they need to gamble responsibly after leaving Vegas with winnings.

(Top photo: Tim Heitman / Getty Images)

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