NEW YORK — Josh Hart was sprinting up the floor, a Knicks teammate flanked to his right and another spotting up on the left wing. He saw a confused set of Lakers opponents in front of him, seemingly pointing at one another instead of trying to stop him. So he kept driving.
When Hart gathered for a left-handed layup, the Lakers appeared on the verge of another transition defense breakdown in a season full of them.
Then Anthony Davis sprang into action.
As Hart took off, the Lakers’ All-Star big man instinctively crouched, leaving his own assignment to address the threat at the rim. He spun around, leaped and swatted Hart’s attempt with his left hand, saving a sure bucket.
It wasn’t quite enough. The ball tipped back to Knicks star Jalen Brunson, who took a power dribble and attacked the open rim again. So Davis, momentarily out of the fray, swiftly crouched again. As the Knicks’ southpaw switched to his right hand, Davis jumped to Brunson’s outside shoulder. The 6-11 Lakers big man spun his body again and swung down with his own right hand, erasing Brunson’s shot emphatically, too.
The sequence ignited a Lakers fast break that turned into a four-point swing. It was emblematic of the effort Davis and the rest of the Lakers showed on this night – and haven’t shown consistently this season.
“Putting my imprint on the game,” Davis said of his back-to-back blocks. “Protecting the rim. Instincts. That’s what I do. It wasn’t like I’ve never done that before. It’s just a natural instinct that I have: see a ball at the rim, go get it.
“I’m just trying to make plays. Shot wasn’t there offensively, I tried to leave my imprint on the game on the defensive end.”
Led by Davis and LeBron James, who scored 24 points while putting on a Broadway-caliber show in the arena he deemed “the Mecca of basketball” earlier in the day, the Lakers defeated the red-hot New York Knicks 113-105 at Madison Square Garden in a Saturday night showcase matchup. In snapping the Knicks’ nine-game winning streak, the Lakers improved to 26-25 and 3-2 on their six-game road trip. They have now won four of six games, including road victories over the league-leading Celtics (without James and Davis) and a Knicks team that had become the talk of the league.
The Lakers entered the fourth quarter trailing by six points before holding the Knicks to just 10 points through the first 11 and a half minutes of the quarter in a dominant defensive effort. Davis had 12 points but added 18 rebounds (16 defensive), one steal and four blocks.
“Last couple games, we said to ourselves, ‘We need to get back to a defensive mind-set, get back to getting stops,’” head coach Darvin Ham said. “We were able to do that Thursday and again tonight.”
After Brunson shredded their defense in the first half and most of the third quarter, the Lakers deployed an aggressive trapping scheme, double-teaming Brunson near halfcourt to force the ball out of his hands. They mixed up their defensive looks, sending blitzes with both their big men and guards, depending on whether the Knicks were performing a more traditional pick-and-roll or using guard-guard screening actions.
The Lakers had practiced the strategy at the team’s shootaround earlier in the day, just the team’s second of the week-long trip as they try to balance rest with preparation. With the Knicks shorthanded without injured regulars Julius Randle, OG Anunoby and Quentin Grimes, they didn’t have the offensive firepower to consistently make the Lakers pay. The Lakers played only six players in the fourth – Davis, James, Taurean Prince, Max Christie, Austin Reaves and Jaxson Hayes – with each contributing to the defensive success.
“Obviously, we were trying to get the ball out of Jalen’s hands,” Ham said. “Taurean had a hell of a task trying to guard him, keep him in check.
“Bron’s assignment was basically to be a one-man zone. You had Max chasing Donte (DiVincenzo) around. It was a great, great team effort. And AD just cleaning up the glass, getting every defensive rebound, it seemed like.”
Brunson finished with 36 points, but he scored only four through the first 11 minutes of the fourth quarter, with more turnovers (two) than assists (one). The Knicks went scoreless for nearly seven minutes to close the fourth before scoring nine points in the final 39 seconds once the game was largely decided.
Reaves (22 points, six rebounds and seven assists) and Prince (16 points) combined for 16 of the Lakers’ first 20 points in the quarter, putting away the Knicks as James and Davis served as offensive decoys and defensive playmakers.
“Anytime you can hold anybody to 10 points in a quarter, you’re gonna more than likely have an advantage,” Reaves said. “And that was just a testament to our rotations.”
The performance came after the Lakers were delivered bad injury news for another key rotation player. During a conversation at the team breakfast at their hotel, Ham and Davis reflected on the absurdity of the Lakers’ injury luck after forward Jarred Vanderbilt became the latest player to go out with a right foot injury, which he suffered in Thursday’s win over the Celtics.
“It’s like, laughing, but it’s not a joking matter,” Ham said before the game. “It’s been the story of our season.”
Vanderbilt’s absence is indeed no laughing matter. There is still no official timetable for the sixth-year forward, though the current expectation is that he will likely miss the rest of the season, according to team sources not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. The Lakers are still evaluating Vanderbilt’s foot and are expected to announce a firmer plan soon.
“It’s going to take a committee,” Ham said. “It just can’t be one or two people that bring what he brought.”
There was speculation entering the Celtics game that Vanderbilt might replace Prince as the starting small forward. With Davis and James ruled out, the Lakers decided not to drastically alter their lineup for that matchup. But with both players back on Saturday, and Vanderbilt injured, Ham inserted Rui Hachimura to replace Prince, who had started each of the 47 games in which he has played this season. Ultimately, Prince still played significantly more minutes against the Knicks than Hachimura (33 to 19).
“Just coming out being bigger along the frontline,” Ham said. “Taurean, he has to do it on both sides of the ball. I just felt like him coming off the bench just would allow him to not only shore up our bench in terms of a defensive presence but also allow him to get some buckets, too. We need him to score and be aggressive offensively. And so he was able to do that.
“It worked out well. It created a nice sense of balance.”
Ham said he was hoping this would be the starting lineup for the foreseeable future — famous last words for the Lakers this season. (To be fair: Ham has made only three starting lineup changes by choice this season, with the other 12 occurring due to an injury.)
Without Vanderbilt, the Lakers have a defensive hole at the point of attack. Part of the reason they went to a more aggressive trapping scheme was that Brunson had his way one-on-one against Prince, who is overmatched against great perimeter scorers like Brunson, Luka Dončić and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Prince is better suited to defending a tertiary offensive option.
But when the Lakers rotate the way they did against the Knicks, or are as defensively active as they were against the Celtics (holding on in the second half despite not having Vanderbilt, James or Davis on their backline), they have the potential to produce at a top-10 defensive level even with this current group. Frankly, Davis is that special on defense, intimidating opponents from driving the paint, switching onto smaller players, corralling any and every rebound in his vicinity and commanding the unit like a quarterback.
“Keep doing what we’re doing,” Davis said. “Keep talking. Honestly, losing one of our biggest defensive presences is tough, but guys got to step up and take the challenge. I think any 1-on-1 matchup you got to take personal. That’s how you get better — take it personal.”
The backdrop to the Lakers’ victory is James making it clear this week that he isn’t happy with the status quo, even if he declined to clarify the intentions behind his cryptic hourglass tweet following Tuesday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks. He labeled the Lakers’ play this season “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Their last five games are a perfect representation: three of their best wins of the season (Golden State, Boston and New York) and two of their worst losses (Houston and Atlanta).
The mood in the Lakers’ locker room on Saturday night, particularly with James, was lighter than it had been earlier in the week. Winning helps. But sometimes, airing things out helps, too. James made it clear where he stands. The ball is now in the Lakers’ court, to a large extent, with Thursday’s trade deadline looming.
The Lakers clearly need to establish a semblance of consistency with their performance, energy, effort and playing rotations. At the same time, they likely need to make a trade or two. The team is putting a greater emphasis on adding a defensive wing by the trade deadline, according to team sources. The issue, of course, is that every team could use another wing. Prospective prices are high.
When asked about James’ tweet and comments, Ham said he had embraced the challenge and understood where James was coming from.
“I mean, it’s already built-in urgency just being a Laker representing this franchise and knowing the type of expectations that we have, the standard that’s been set,” Ham said before the game.
“I don’t expect anything different with him as an individual player and what he’s been able to do in this league. And again, the stage of his career where he’s at,” Ham added, “I’d have put out two or three out saying hourglasses or whatever. I get it, I totally get it. So it’s what we all signed up for.”
The Lakers close out their road trip Monday in Charlotte. If they win, it’ll mark the first time this season they’ve gone above .500 on any road trip.
(Top photo: Brad Penner / USA Today)