LeBron James Outshines Struggling Luka Doncic as Lakers Beat Mavericks

Kyle Newport@@KyleNewportFeatured ColumnistNovember 1, 2018

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (23) is defended by Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers held off the Dallas Mavericks, 114-113, at the Staples Center on Wednesday night.

James led the way for L.A. with 29 points, five rebounds, six assists and three steals, with Kyle Kuzma (18 points and eight rebounds) and Brandon Ingram (17 points) also contributing to the victory.

No. 3 overall pick Luka Doncic put up 14 points, seven assists and five rebounds in a losing effort.


Kyle Kuzma More Ready to Be LeBron's Sidekick Than Brandon Ingram

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 20: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers makes his home debut with Brandon Ingram #14 and Kyle Kuzma #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers looking on against the Houston Rockets at Staples Center on October 20, 2018 in Los Angeles,
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

When James signed with Los Angeles this summer, everyone had one question: Who would emerge as his primary sidekick?

During James' run of eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances, he had at least one teammate play at an All-Star-caliber level. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did so in Miami, and then Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love followed suit in Cleveland.

While the Lakers have plenty of young talent on their roster, it wasn't clear who would become the No. 2 option.

Thus far, it's been Kuzma.

Kuzma started the season on the bench for the new-look Lakers and averaged 13 points in those two contests. Once he moved into the starting lineup in the third game of the season, the second-year forward began to take off. Not only did he drop 37 in his first start of the season, but he has averaged 21.3 in six starts in 2018-19.

Los Angeles Lakers @Lakers

Kuz puts it ⬇️ #LakeShow https://t.co/KSj9KE1Skp

That has given James a productive sidekick to help carry the load.

Former No. 2 overall pick Ingram, on the other hand, will have to continue to find his role. He has gotten off to a solid start this season, averaging 17.3 points and 4.0 rebounds, but he hasn't quite been on Kuzma's level this far. His four-game suspension for his role in a brawl with Houston Rockets point guard Chris Paul didn't help his cause.

That's another reason Kuzma is in a better position than Ingram to play second fiddle to James. Kuzma has missed only five games in his first year-plus in the league, while Ingram has missed 30 games since the Lakers drafted him second overall in 2016.

On Wednesday night, Kuzma led the way with 11 first-quarter points and did not miss a shot in the first half. Ingram was 3-of-8 from the floor during that time.

For the Lakers to snap a five-year playoff drought, the likes of Kuzma, Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart need to take some pressure off James. Early on, Kuzma appears to be up to the task, which is a promising sign for Luke Walton and Co.


Lakers Defense Must Improve to Make Them True Contenders

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 31:  LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the second half of a game against the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on October 31, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Any team with James, Kuzma, Ingram, Ball and Hart is going to be able to put up points. However, it's tough to win when you can't stop opposing teams from lighting up the scoreboard.

That's something the Lakers learned firsthand as they lost five of their first seven games this season.

Los Angeles entered Wednesday third in the NBA in scoring (122.0 points per game), but it also ranked 29th in scoring defense (allowing 122.3 points per game). The Lakers have yet to hold an opponent under 110 points.

Sure, teams are scoring at a historic rate, as Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press noted last week (h/t NBA.com). Only one team, the Boston Celtics (97.6), is giving up fewer than 100 points per game this season, and only nine squads are below the 110.3-point threshold. However, the Lakers are in a completely different universe than other top contenders such as Boston, Golden State (110.8) and Toronto (109.0).

Not only that, but the Lakers' mark is only 0.1 points off the worst in the NBA.

Los Angeles entered Wednesday having allowed teams to shoot 47.7 percent from the floor and 37.4 percent from distance, both of which rank in the bottom third of the league.

James led a Cleveland Cavaliers team that ranked 26th in points allowed to the NBA Finals last season, but this season's Western Conference is much tougher than last year's Eastern Conference. The Cavs also had three players who shot at least 40 percent from beyond the arc (minimum of two attempts per game), while Josh Hart (39.6 percent) led the Lakers in three-point shooting last season.

Unless the Lakers drastically improve either their three-point shooting or their defense, they'll have a tough time making a deep playoff run, let alone dethroning the Warriors.


Mavericks Offense Not Good Enough with Luka Doncic Struggling

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 31:  Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks shoots the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers on October 31, 2018 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadi
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

Dallas has a chance to compete when Doncic is on top of his game, but when he struggles, the offense has a tough time getting into a rhythm.

Even against shaky defenses, as the Mavericks proved Wednesday.

Entering Wednesday night's game against the Lakers, Doncic had gotten off to a strong start to his career. The third overall pick was averaging 20.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists through seven games, and he notched 20-plus points in three of the past four contests. He was coming off a career-high 31 points against the San Antonio Spurs on Monday.

That impressive start caught James' eye, per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk:

Ohm Youngmisuk @NotoriousOHM

LeBron James on Luka Doncic and how European pro players develop quicker than American players https://t.co/01BSiHcn7v

However, Wednesday was not the rookie's night for the majority of the game.

Doncic went 0-for-5 from the field in the first half and was held scoreless until the final five minutes of the third quarter. As a result, the Mavericks found themselves trailing by double digits for much of the night.

It's no coincidence that the Mavs made it a game once Doncic started to heat up, both shooting and passing. In fact, it was the 19-year-old point guard who capped off the comeback with the game-tying bucket:

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Luka hits the clutch shot and Bron splits the free throw, but the Lakers hold on against the Mavs 👀 https://t.co/AzvYEJEXQc

It was just too little, too late, though.

To be fair, most teams would have trouble keeping up when their leading scorer struggles. Dallas, though, is at an even bigger disadvantage, especially with Dirk Nowitzki still sidelined as he continues to recover from ankle surgery. Wesley Matthews (21 points) and Harrison Barnes (19 points) each had solid nights, but until Doncic got going, the Mavs couldn't find a way to keep up.


What's Next

The Mavericks (2-6) will return to Dallas to host the New York Knicks on Friday night, while the Lakers (3-5) will hit the road to take on the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday.