A free throw from LeBron James got the Lakers a one-point win over the Mavericks on Thursday night, in an exciting home match that cancelled out the spectre of LeBron’s late loss to the Spurs more than any game in the interim, albeit while raising some broader question about Los Angeles’ form as well. LeBron was also the first to score, clocking up a 10-foot step back jumpshot a minute in, then assisting Brandon Ingram with a 12-foot jumper thirty seconds later.
A missed driving floating jump shot from Dennis Smith Jr. laid the platform for a two-pointer and then a dunk from Kyle Kuzma, the latter assisted by LeBron, forcing the Mavericks to scramble a comeback that saw Smith make up for his botched bucket with a three-point jumper moments later, and Wesley Matthews put down six successive points with a 12-foot driving floating jump shot, a technical free throw, and then a 27-foot three point jumper off a Luka Doncic assist.
Still, a superb alley oop from Javale McGee and Lonzo Ball kept the momentum in the Lakers’ hands, with LeBron coming in to assist successive three point jumpers from Ingram and Kuzman to expand the scoreline to 20-12 by halfway through the opening quarter. Two free throws from Kuzma, a three-pointer from Ball, a 14-foot two pointer from LeBron, and then a LeBron-assisted layup from Ball, marked one of the most sustained pointscoring sequences for the Lakers this season, as a series of errors and fouls prevented the Mavs scoring again until nine minutes in, when Matthews notched up a three point jumper.
Wisely, the Lakers chose this moment for a full timeout – just before Dallas could accrue any momentum – and yet a delay of game violation for the hosts quashed some of their own momentum as well, as an offensive foul from Johnathan Williams, a missed driving layup from Rondo and a personal foul for Josh Hart put an end to their sublime sequence of points. No doubt, Lance Stephenson’s three-point jumper was superb, but a pair of missed three pointers from Hart and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope meant that the Lakers didn’t quite feel like they were seventeen ahead as the quarter ended, partly due to a terrific alley oop from Maximillian Kleber and J.J. Barea with eleven seconds to go.
Kleber and Barea switched toles for another alley oop ten seconds into the next quarter, before combining for a driving layup that went some way to neutralizing the spectacle of a 20-foot pullup jump shot from Caldwell-Pope, assisted by LeBron. Kleber was strong on defence too, blocking a two-pointer from LeBron, although the King still managed to respond to a pair of free throws from Jalen Brunson with a Rondo-assisted layup a couple of seconds later.
Still, Kleber was insatiable in defence, blocking a 3-foot dunk from Caldwell-Pope immediately after, paving the way for a sequence of points from Dwight Powell, Barea and Matthews that saw the scoreline shrink to a four point game. A full timeout was needed for Los Angeles, after which a tip shot from Kuzma, a free throw from Ingram, and then a two-point shot from LeBron went some way to reinstating the Lakers’ advantage.
Part of the rhythm of this game, though, was that teams seemed to enjoy sustained pointscoring opportunities, or at least pointscoring spectacles, and it was now Dallas’ turn, with Jordan and Smith combining for an alley oop, and Harrison Barnes clocking up a 26-foot running pullup jump shot, for a display of strength that seemed to put the Mavericks much closer to the lead than four points. It was the kind of moment when LeBron had to consolidate the whole team in his game, yet a driving layup and a free throw wasn’t quite enough to reach the splendid lead of the opening quarter, even if a late, Rondo-assisted three-pointer from Ball did maintain a relatively comfortable scoreline of 59-66.
McGee controlled the opening of the third quarter, thanks to a layup and dunk that put the Lakers eleven ahead, only for Matthews to remind us that sometimes dexterity can produce as much momentum as sustained pointscoring, clocking up a superb 26-foot three jumper off a Doncic assist, and following it up with a 3-foot two-pointer just for good measure, after Ingram had missed a pullup jump shot, Kuzma had missed a 3-foot hook shot, and McGee had missed doubling his opening dunk.
LeBron now stepped up again – not just with skill, but with spectacle, contributing a pair of three-point efforts in the space of twenty seconds, the first a jumper assisted by Ball, the second a step back jumpshot assisted by Kuzma. LeBron wasn’t content to rest there, however, stealing the ball from Jordan and then leading an offensive charge that put the momentum squarely back in the Lakers’ court. Two more layups from LeBron with five minutes left – both assisted by Kuzma – proved to be unanswerable by Dallas, athough Dorian Finney-Smith came close with a pair of three-point efforts of his own, both assisted by Barea; the first an alley oop, the second a 25-point jumper.
At first, the third quarter appeared to end with a series of free throws – one from Caldwell-Pope, one from Powell, and then two from LeBron, foreshadowing the anti-Spurs narrative that would end up winning the Lakes the game. Yet LeBron seemed prescient that this was too anticlimactic an ending for such a hard won third quarter, finishing up with a 19-foot step back jumpshot with twenty-six seconds on the clock, only for Finney-Smith to sneak in a sly dunk with one second left to go.
Given how integral he had been to the Lakers’ momentum, it was a bit worrying to see LeBron slip a bit at the start of the first quarter, with the ex-Cav missing the opening two-point shot and then undercutting a Rondo two-pointer with a personal foul. It was followed by a shooting foul for Williams, and yet the Mavericks only got a point out of it. Still, another miss from LeBron shortly after – a 20-foot jumper – didn’t bode well, and sure enough the Mavs were the next to score, by way of a two point shot from Brunson.
Bit by bit, Dallas started to narrow the scoreline, with a superb Barea-assisted alley oop from Powell playing a critical role, as a series of exchanges – Smith for Barea, Jordan for Powell, Barnes for Matthews, Finney-Smith from Kleber – seemed to breathe new life into the Mavericks as the game wound down to its final six minutes. For a while, they went point and point, only for the Mavs to settle into a groove around the two minute mark, when a pullump jump shot from Doncic, a dunk from Jordan, a missed two-pointer from LeBron, a free throw from Doncic, a person foul from LeBron and, finally, a pair of free throws from Jordan brought the scoreline to 108-112.
The Mavericks weren’t done, though, as a three-point jumper from Barnes and floating driving jump shot finally brought the scoreline level at 113-113, for what would have been an incredibly cathartic victory for Dallas if they’d come away with the win. A personal foul from Matthews at 2.1 seconds gave the Lakers the upper hand, and while LeBron may have missed the first free throw, he made the second, with a missed 38-foot three point jumper from Barea at 0.5 seconds sealing the deal.
All in all, then, this was an exciting win for the Lakers, but not the most heartening victory that could be imagined. Sure, seeing LeBron come away at the clutch with a free throw margin was cathartic after his loss to San Antonio, but with another ten or thirty seconds the Mavericks would probably have won it, so rigorously had they chipped away at Los Angeles’ opening lead. The Lakers will be keen, then, to aim for a more conclusive victory when they take on the Blazers for the second time next game, while the Mavs will be looking for some catharsis of their own when they take on New York, Washington and Utah over the coming days.