The Mavericks went straight to work on Sunday afternoon building the mountain the Lakers would climb for the rest of the day.
Luka Doncic, choked by Anthony Davis, coolly stepped back and tapped his wrist, slamming in a three. And then another and another.
Dallas couldn’t miss; the Lakers could not make it. The Mavericks would make seven 3-pointers in the first 12 minutes and 10 to lead with 27 before the Lakers could get just one to go through the hoop.
But slowly, the Lakers began to climb, slowly at first before steadily gaining speed.
And from there, Jarred Vanderbilt decided that he and his teammates were going to sprint.
While Davis and LeBron James hit the big shots that stunned the Lakers 111-108 win Sundaynone of this would have been possible without Vanderbilt.
“A lot of times I would say, ‘Don’t look at the stats sheet,’ because he’s doing all the things that aren’t really on the stats sheet,” said Austin Reaves before listing the numbers.
Vanderbilt had 15 points. He grabbed 17 rebounds. He had four steals. Vanderbilt shut down Doncic faster than the failed marriage proposal on the scoreboard in the first half.
Davis had 30 points and 15 rebounds, James climbed to 26 points and Dennis Schroder, starting for the injured D’Angelo Russell, finished with 16 points and eight assists.
Vanderbilt had eight points, eight rebounds and three steals in the third quarter, putting the Lakers back in the game.
“I was really just trying to up the intensity, be a little bit more physical. I knew we needed it at the time,” Vanderbilt said of the second half. “I’m just trying to bring the energy, put in the effort, and just change the momentum of the game.”
The Lakers suddenly have all kinds of momentum, now winners of three consecutive games and four of five since the NBA’s trade deadline.
One of the team’s signings, Vanderbilt seemed invaluable as a jack-of-all-trades with the smarts to find ways to assist on offense without a traditional set of scorer skills.
“He comes out and sets the tone for us defensively on Luka, gets some steals and lets him throw some hard shots,” said Davis. “His rebound on both ends of the floor, it was just starting to take effect for our group to close in defensively. And on the other hand, he knows that guys like to play with him and make him shoot and he knows how to play with it. He knows with his corner kicks and crashing into the glass, giving us extra possessions, his value to our team, you can’t even put into words what he brings and does for us.
The swing in momentum was so severe on Sunday that James suffered a right foot injury that sent him to court in severe pain.
‘It’s been better. That’s for sure. But I certainly wasn’t going to go to the locker room and not finish the game tonight,” he said. “I just understood the importance of the game and with the momentum we had, I felt like we could still win after being down. We will keep an eye on it over the next few days, see how it feels and go from there.”
James walked out of the arena with a limp.
From James’ determination to Reaves’ tough outing against Dallas’ Josh Green to the Lakers making their second 25+ point comeback this year, there’s little doubt about the team’s determination.
That was before the deadline. Now the Lakers just have better role players.
Since the deadline, Russell and Malik Beasley have been at the forefront of Laker wins; On Sunday it was Vanderbilt’s turn.
Locked in on Doncic, who scored just 12 points after the first quarter, Vanderbilt continued to show that he can be one of the Lakers’ greatest defensive weapons.
“My mindset was to just make him uncomfortable. He’s a great player when he’s comfortable and gets into his rhythm and gets in his zone,” Vanderbilt said. “I was just trying to disrupt that by just lifting him 94 (feet), making him work. I knew during the game he was going to get tired, get tired, just bring the ball up and down all over the court and then try to make a move after I’ve already cut eight seconds off the clock, so I knew it was exhausting my thing was just get up in him and force him to ride and just be physical with him and make him uncomfortable.
The plan worked, Vanderbilt’s defense mounted a 27-point comeback in a game where the Lakers never got into rhythm from three-point land. The team only finished six out of 34 (Vanderbilt made his only attempt).
Since the 2020-21 season, only one team has won a game in which it took at least 30 threes and achieved a lower percentage than the Lakers’ 17.6% on Sunday. Only 11 teams have done it in league history.
After beating the Golden State Warriors on shooting and skill, they dominated the Mavericks with strength and will, the kind of versatility the Lakers hope to use as they climb the mountain in the postseason they’ve built for themselves by season 2-10 to start.
“Before the break we encouraged everyone to get some rest, but know that after this break we have to be ready to be busy,” said coach Darvin Ham. “And really starting to push our will, so to speak, for the rest of this season so we can get a spot and get where we want to get to. And you are witnessing the process of that.”