If the previous six weeks looked as if they were too good to be true, it’s because they were.
The reality that struck the Lakers on Sunday was as deflating as a three-pointer by Luka Doncic, a 114-100 defeat to the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center confirming their record was more of a reflection of their soft schedule their than collective abilities.
And now, in the wake of a loss that ended a 10-game winning streak, the same question that was asked about the Lakers before the season has to be asked again: How good are they?
The answer remains a mystery. About all that can be declared with certainty is they’re good, but not 17-2 good, or even 17-3 good.
“We can play better,” LeBron James conceded.
The Lakers are 3-3 against teams with winning records. They have feasted against sub-.500 teams, their entire winning streak built on beating losing teams.
There’s something to be said for that. Squashing bad teams is what good teams do.
But as much focus as the Lakers have maintained, as much of a commitment to defense as they have displayed, they are beatable.
The Mavericks demonstrated how.
They couldn’t beat the Lakers inside — with Anthony Davis there, who can? — so they beat them from the outside.
They shot 49 three-pointers. The Lakers’ previous opponents attempted an average of 32.6. The Mavericks took 36 shots from behind the arc when the Lakers defeated them in Dallas last month.
The improvement was a credit to Doncic, who reaffirmed his MVP credentials by finishing with 27 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds.
“Team that shoots 40 threes a night is not a team that you want to be double-teaming the whole night,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “But Luka’s that good. He requires that.”
The game was a reminder of the degree to which James leads the Lakers. He started as if he were possessed, stripping Mavericks forward Kristaps Porzingis and converting a dunk for a 6-2 lead.
Minutes later, James intercepted a pass by Doncic and assisted on a dunk by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to increase the advantage to 11-5.
James had three of his four steals in the opening period, in which the Lakers led by 10 on three occasions. But they went into halftime ahead by only 62-59, a testament to the Mavericks’ three-point shooting.
Then the third quarter happened.
“We really didn’t have an opposite pop the whole quarter,” Vogel said.
The Mavericks opened the second half with a 9-0 run and went ahead by as many as 20 points.
James scored only two points in the period. Davis had five. A third scoring option never emerged.
But equally important was how Doncic and the Mavericks broke down the Lakers’ defense. In addition to scoring 16 points in the quarter, Doncic had five assists as the Mavericks made four of 11 three-point attempts when the Lakers collapsed on the 20-year-old star.
“We were just a step slow, scrambling around to the three-point shooters, and then when you’re in rotation as much as we were, it makes you vulnerable on the glass,” Vogel said.
The Mavericks had 23 second-chance points in the game. The Lakers had 10.
“Our defense was terrible today,” Davis said. “We didn’t rebound the basketball therefore we keep giving them second-chance points and they made us pay with threes.”
Sunday marked the start of a notable tough month for the Lakers. It was the first of 10 games the Lakers will play in December against teams that have records better than .500.
“We’re not going to get down over one loss,” Davis said. “We know the type of team we are.”
Or, more precisely, the type of team the Lakers think they are.
The upcoming three-game trip will be informative. The Lakers will play in Denver on Tuesday, Utah on Wednesday and Portland on Friday.
Their season is about to start in earnest, and they are about to learn who they are.