The championship was celebrated, the Lakers’ early season goal accomplished last weekend in Las Vegas.
The in-season tournament served as the catalyst for the Lakers’ turnaround, a competition that showed the Lakers that they could dominate big games and that they had the kind of elite defensive capabilities that give their hopes for the main championship credibility.
But with that all over, the experience ending with a future banner in the rafters and a cash injection into their bank accounts, the Lakers have to get back to regular old basketball.
So, there was always going to be a little bit of “Now what?” to Tuesday’s game against the Dallas Mavericks.
After a slow start during which their defensive intensity didn’t approach necessary levels, the Lakers fought back before losing 127-125 to the short-handed Mavericks to start a three-game stretch in Texas.
Dallas, playing on the second night of a back-to-back without starters Kyrie Irving and Derrick Jones Jr. and key reserve Josh Green, handed the ball fully to Luka Doncic. And in Tim Hardaway Jr., Doncic had a partner more than willing to step into the void and take those available shots.
Hardaway scored 32 points and Dante Exum scored 26 with Doncic adding 33 and an absurd 17 assists.
Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 37, LeBron James scored 33 and Austin Reaves added 22 in the loss.
Dallas led the Lakers by as many 15, shooting better than 70% from the field for much of the first half as the Lakers watched Grant Williams and a supposed non-shooter in Exum burn the nets.
Exum’s shooting in particular was a problem. The former lottery pick had made only eight total three-pointers this season before hitting seven Tuesday for a career high. The seventh was the back-breaker as it came after a Reaves three rimmed around and in to make it a one-possession game.
The Lakers, playing without Jarred Vanderbilt who was sidelined by back spasms after a three-game return from a heel injury, didn’t have the same consistent defensive bite that helped them win the in-season tournament, a predictable dip in intensity.
The Lakers found some life in the second half, the hangover from Las Vegas clearing as James and Davis pushed them back into the game. The two combined for 24 points in the third with Davis’ three at the buzzer — his first triple since Oct. 29 — giving the Lakers a lead heading into the fourth.
But the Lakers defense never got enough stops, Dallas shooting 60% and making six threes in the fourth.
The Lakers play Wednesday night and Friday night in San Antonio against the Spurs.