I wanted to see Luka versus LeBron in person, so I circled the December 15th matchup between the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers on the calendar when the season started. I waited until a few days before the game to make sure LeBron was playing. He’s been nicked up all season, after all.
But it turned out Luka was the one who would miss the game. I was bummed that I’d miss out on what’s become a fun little rivalry. The basketball gods, though, had other plans. This Lakers-Mavericks game went from a Wednesday night slog to a hoops rollercoaster within a few hours.
I’ve caught this Lakers team on TV a few times, so I knew they were an odd fit, but it really stood out in person. Four future hall of famers, patched together onto a roster that doesn’t really make sense, no matter the angle you look at it through. You can’t help but be tantalized by them, though.
Russell Westbrook flew at the basket without regard, sometimes with a plan, sometimes in a fury of athleticism that was nothing more than an attack on the rim itself. At times he looked like his old self, gravity-defying, impossible to contain. Other times he looked just a step slow, with just a bit less lift. I’ve seen Westbrook play in person for three different teams in three different arenas. It never gets old.
At one point LeBron pushed the ball up court and the entire crowd came to life with anticipation. I’ve never seen an electricity surge in a crowd like that in the first quarter of a regular season game. Whenever he had the ball in his hands, there was this sense he was going to do something. And that something could be incredible.
LeBron’s cross court passes zipped through the air like missiles. I swear one of them curved around Reggie Bullock, defying physics. Certain guys just look different when you watch them in person. They have an energy that transforms the court, and for some reason it just doesn’t come through on television. LeBron is one of those guys.
Carmelo Anthony, reduced to a shell of himself lately, even broke out a few iso’s, dribbling into midrange shots, some he made, some he missed. I thought about how years ago I watched him in this same building when he played for the Denver Nuggets. He was a much different player then, four teams ago. It’s odd to think of that, or at least it is to me.
It was surreal to see them all three on the court at the same time. Not quite an all-star game roster, but all three at times looking like they did in their primes, then coming back to earth after a few plays. They never seemed to mesh at the same time on the court, which is expected. All are past their primes, especially Carmelo and LeBron. Anthony Davis, ostensibly there to carry them as they pass into this next phase of their careers, only drifts. Sometimes he makes incredible plays. Other times he sulks, seeming disinterested in how hard basketball in the NBA can be.
The Mavericks were weird, too, relying on Jalen Brunson to score in the place of the missing Luka. Brunson penetrated the paint at will, getting buckets on awkward layups with high degree of difficulty. He whipped the ball around, too, not like LeBron, because he’s not LeBron, but with a crispness I’d never noticed before.
Kristaps Porzingis didn’t shoot with much efficiency, but he defended well, rebounded, and made some good passes. Oh, and one amazing pass. Have you ever seen a 7’3” center make a pass like this?
From my seat above, that pass looked like a glitch in the Matrix. I wasn’t sure if Porzingis actually touched it. But on the replay there it was, a special play I’ll probably remember the rest of my life.
Porzingis has to be better if he’s going to be the Mavericks’ highest paid player and second star. But once a game he has a play that makes you raise your eyebrows and picture a timeline where he’s lethal. We saw that in the bubble playoffs, briefly. Maybe one day he’ll put it together again.
The Mavericks’ role players faltered again, with the exception of Tim Hardaway Jr. They just can’t make shots. Much like the Lakers, the Mavericks scuffled and kept the game close. The crowd rippled with contained energy, waiting for one of the teams to go on a sustained run and take control. Neither team could do it.
And because this game was weird, of course the ending had to be bizarre. The final six minutes felt like a fever dream. I don’t really remember it in chronological order, just scenes of chaos and an arena with ear splitting noise.
Porzingis and Kleber forgetting they were on the same team and fighting over the ball, leading to a Wayne Ellington 3-pointer to tie the game. The overtime tip. A LeBron dunk off a Westbrook assist put the Lakers up three. Hardaway hitting a 3-pointer from an absurd distance to tie it again.
Then came a Westbrook corner three. That’s when I knew the Mavericks would lose. A clutch 3-pointer from Westbrook is a bad omen, like the moon turning red. But then a Kleber 3-pointer, banked in, because why not. The game tied, the Lakers with the ball and the shot clock turned off. The Westbrook blood moon omen hanging over the Mavericks. I prepared for the worst.
LeBron was doubled and the ball made its way to Westbrook in the corner again. He had the shot. But even he knows there’s no such thing as two miracles in a row. Westbrook put it on the floor and got into the paint. The Mavericks defense collapsed. Westbrook kicked it out to Austin Reaves.
Reaves, the subject of a recent Mirin Fader piece for The Ringer, had spent the game alternating between sniper and baby deer loose on a basketball court. “I just love his fearlessness,” Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy says in the profile. Well, the Mavericks learned about Reaves’ fearlessness.
Reaves drained the three, and the crowd, full of Lakers fans, cheered loudly. The Mavericks fans around me dropped their heads. We were all disappointed. Dallas lost, after all. But it was hard to feel too down. When you go to a basketball you want to be entertained. And despite the result, there’s no doubt we were enthralled with a fever dream of a basketball game. Basketball is very good.
Here’s our latest episode of Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you’re unable to see the embed below, click here to be taken to the podcast directly. Or go to your favorite podcast app and search Mavs Moneyball Podcast.