For those who believe the Lakers‘ early season success has been a product of a soft schedule, Sunday afternoon’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks was validation. After running up a 10-game win streak against the Suns, Warriors, Kings, Hawks, Thunder (twice), Grizzlies, Spurs, Pelicans and Wizards, the Lakers finally played a team with a current winning record for the first time since they lost to the Raptors three weeks ago.
For the record, the Lakers’ haven’t beaten a current winning team since they defeated Miami 95-90 all the way back on Nov. 8.
If you’re purely a results evaluator, that certainly calls the Lakers’ recent domination into question. I’m not in that camp. The Lakers are an elite team, but they might not be quite as good as a 10-game win streak and a 17-3 overall record seemingly indicates.
There’s no doubt the Lakers have won a lot of these games simply by having the two best players on the floor, especially at the end of games. They’re pulling out a lot of squeakers against subpar competition. Yes, there’s something to be said for simply knowing how to win, and having the necessary components to do so when push comes to shove. But if you’re constantly going down to the wire, you’re either playing down to the level of the competition or you’re not as far above that competition as some people might think.
The Lakers have had to come back from a double-digit deficit five times. The beat the Grizzlies by one, the Kings by two, the Thunder by three, the Pelicans by four, and the Thunder again by five.
These are not good teams.
The Mavericks, who’ve now won seven of eight themselves, are a good team. Sunday’s 114-100 win ran their record to 13-6, and 7-2 on the road. Luka Doncic fell one rebound shy of another triple-double, finishing with 27 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. Doncic took the game over in the third quarter, when the Mavericks went on a 22-5 run to turn a close game into a blowout.
Doncic went for 16 points, five assists and four rebounds in the third quarter alone, and that wasn’t a random occurrence. For whatever reason, the Lakers stopping blitzing and doubling Doncic — which had neutralized him in the first half — and started letting him play in space against single defenders. It was a bad decision. This is what Luka does when you “try” to guard him straight up:
Once Doncic started doing his step-back thing and found his rhythm as a playmaker, this Lakers defense, which has ranked as a top-two unit in the league for long stretches this season, looked pretty helpless. Doncic and the Mavs can do that to teams. They are the No. 1 ranked offense in the league. But suffice it to say, the Lakers looked a lot different than they did when they played, for instance, the Hawks, who they boat-raced from the start and held to 28 percent shooting from 3.
The Mavericks, meanwhile, blitzed the Lakers from the 3-point line — though not with a terribly great percentage. Dallas made 17 3s out of 49 attempts, but again, that’s a product of the Lakers’ defense. You pay as much attention to Doncic as the Lakers did in the first half, other guys are going to get open shots. You switch that strategy and guard Luka straight up, and he’s going to torch you.
This is what makes Dallas a problem, but it’s also a problem for the Lakers, who are supposed to be good enough to thwart the best teams’ attack on their own terms. But this game spotlighted what many people questioned about the Lakers from the start: What happens when LeBron and Davis don’t dominate? Do they have enough shooting around them? Can the defense hold up with LeBron in Year 17 and Rajon Rondo and Danny Green no spring chickens?
Against bad teams, those questions have been answered. Against good teams, perhaps not so much. The Lakers shot just 7 of 27 from 3-point range on Sunday. LeBron put up 25-9-8 but didn’t completely dominate, Davis finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds, but he was pretty bad in the stretch of the third quarter when the game was lost, forcing his offense in isolation, settling for mid-range jump shots and turning the ball over when he put it on the floor.
It’s another potential Achilles heel for the Lakers, who rely on Davis A LOT to make individual plays even though he hasn’t been terrific at doing so; entering Sunday, Davis was shooting just 30 percent on isolation possessions. That registers him in the 33rd percentile league-wide, per Synergy, on such plays, where he scores at about the same rate as Julius Randle.
Davis said after the loss that it’s just one game, and of course he’s right. And of course he’s going to say that. But that said, there isn’t a ton of evidence of what this Lakers team is against good competition, and as that’s concerned, we’re going to find out a lot about the in the coming weeks.
Through the end of the year, here’s what the Lakers’ schedule looks like:
That’s 13 games against nine winning teams, and the Blazers aren’t exactly your typical sub-.500 squad. That’s also nine road games out of 13. It’s a tough stretch. The Lakers have done what good teams do in taking care of business during a soft spot in the schedule, but now they’re entering into a prove-it stretch. We’ll see how it goes.