Reggie Bullock’s moving screen wasn't outwardly vicious on replay, at least not enough to constitute the spill. But Vanderbilt as if knowing the potential butterfly effect of the turnover, sacrificed his body in Ric Flair fashion to try and swing the momentum the Lakers’ way heading into halftime.
On the next possession, Malik Beasley canned a three, and what once was a seismic lead had shriveled to a manageable 14. The Lakers would eventually go on to become the first team this season to overcome a deficit of 27 points or more and win.
Of course, there were many critical plays and contributions across the board that helped the purple and gold score the upset on Sunday, but it was Vanderbilt’s efforts in the third quarter in particular, that proved to be the catalyst in what could potentially end up being a season-extending win. Let’s take a closer look at how he did it.
“Vando obviously started it all,” Anthony Davis said in his post-game interview. “With his ball pressure on Luka (Doncic), getting some steals and kinda turnt us up defensively.”
Given the daunting Doncic matchup, Vanderbilt did his best not only to make things difficult against the perennial MVP candidate, but also keep up with his mental chess game. Take this early possession above for example.
The 23-year-old picks up Doncic at mid-court, and although he’s momentarily stonewalled by the high ball-screen, he knows the roll pass is coming and snuffs it out.
On the other end, Vanderbilt also used the combination of his athleticism and basketball IQ to help jumpstart the team early in the second half.
Notice how in this sequence, Vanderbilt is signaling to LeBron James that the corner is open. He is also preparing to set a pin-in screen to keep it that way. When James instead misses the shot, Vanderbilt keeps the possession alive, which ultimately leads to second-chance points.
While the turnovers Vanderbilt helped force obviously proved to be a big factor in the Lakers’ comeback, what shouldn't go understated were the Mavericks’ possessions where Doncic didn't even touch the ball because of the forward’s stingy defense.
“My mindset was to just make him uncomfortable,” Vanderbilt said following the game about the matchup. “He’s a hell of player when he’s comfortable, gets into a rhythm... so I was trying to disrupt that.”
In this clip, Vanderbilt plays ball-denial on Doncic to the extent that his back is turned from the ball-handler and his arms extended to take away the potential pass. Once securing the miss, he helps initiate the early offense chances and ultimately gets rewarded for his efforts.
Like he did above, Vanderbilt’s grab-and-go game is proving to be an interesting wrinkle to the Lakers’ transition game.
With so much of the defense’s attention naturally gravitating toward LeBron James and Davis in terms of matching up, having another player who can initiate scoring opportunities off of live rebounds is a dimension the team will likely look to replace with Russell Westbrook’s absence.
Here, Vanderbilt takes advantage of the Mavericks’ inability to stop the ball and takes it coast to coast.
While Vanderbilt possesses nearly every physical tool you would want in a modern NBA defender, he also occupies the rare combination of awareness and anticipation.
After he helps trap Doncic on the baseline and forcing the ball out of his hands, Vanderbilt swiftly reads Bullock’s eyes and intercepts his pass like an all-pro safety.
This athleticism, awareness, and anticipation stew isn't something Vanderbilt cooks up only on the defensive end — as despite having limitations offensively, he knows how to exploit his weaknesses thanks to his mental and physical tools.
As a career 27.8% shooter from deep, defenses often ignore or sag off of Vanderbilt in the half court as Dallas does here.
Like a bull seeing red however, once Vanderbilt sees backs of jerseys, he storms into the paint either for a timely cut or offensive rebound. While the spacing issues are real, they are not compounded by laxness as he is never stagnant.
“He knows guys like to play off of him and make him shoot. He knows how to play off it with his corner cutting and crashing into the glass and getting us extra possessions,” Davis said of his new front-court partner.
“His value for our team, you can’t even put it into words what he brings and does for us. Having a player like that definitely helps us.”
After seeing the Lakers trot out less physically equipped players to check the upper echelon wings and forwards of the league earlier in the season, having someone like Vanderbilt in these matchups is a giant breath of fresh air.
It’s a role that needed dire filling, and it’s one the team’s new addition seems up for.
“I like that challenge every single night...being able to guard the best players no matter 1-5,” Vanderbilt said. “I think I am capable of doing that and that’s my value and my impact on this team.”
Doncic ultimately still got his numbers by the end of the night, but he had to at least work for them thanks to Vanderbilt’s constant ball pressure.
That pressure and attention weren’t reciprocated however, as Doncic routinely chose to ignore Vanderbilt when the Lakers were on offense which once again the latter exploited.
Slotted in the corner in this possession, Vanderbilt once more goes completely unchecked as he runs the baseline to tip-in the miss.
“I think some guys in our league,” James said of Vanderbilt, “when you’re not great at something, teams are able to use that to their advantage defensively. They can either sag off of you or play off of you. His basketball IQ and his intelligence of being guarded this way for so long has actually used it to his advantage.”
As James alluded to, the loudness in which Vanderbilt plays basketball is also balanced by subtlety as well.
Yes, the turnovers he forces are worth the admiration they receive, but so do the nuanced sequences. Watch Vanderbilt in this defensive possession for example.
His priority is Doncic on the weakside, but once Kyrie Irving breaks free and the cut presents itself, Vanderbilt instantly stunts over to deter the pass. The play eventually breaks down, and although Vanderbilt will not be credited for it, that momentarily lunge made all the difference.
While the read and react nature of his game will have aficionados stroking their chins, it’s also fun just to watch Vanderbilt pull a play out of thin air with his sheer will.
After getting burned once too many times before, Doncic makes sure not to lose tabs on Vanderbilt in the corner again. Constantly looking back at his assignment, Doncic also plays him closer than one usually would for a shooter of his reputation. And yet, with no physical boxout given, Vanderbilt again crashes in and secures the rebound over multiple Mavericks.
Effort, athleticism, and cognition all splattering across the hardwood like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Given their place in the standings and finite number of games left in the season, the Lakers needed this win.
There is value also in the manner it happened. Although a team never wants to see themselves on the wrong end of a 27-point deficit, the resiliency shown and getting a performance like they did from a player like Vanderbilt should give them a boost of confidence in their attempt in cracking the postseason.
“I was really just trying to up the intensity, just be a little more physical,” Vanderbilt added. “I knew we needed it at that point, so just trying to bring the energy, the effort and just trying to change the game momentum wise.”
Vanderbilt’s fingerprints, sweat and even some blood were ultimately found all over the game, as he ended with 15 points, 17 rebounds and four steals while also being a +14 in the boxscore. Eight of those points and rebounds came in the pivotal third quarter alone.
On a team that is still top-heavy, but more balanced now after the trade deadline, any contributions they receive from their forward on the stat sheet will typically be just icing on the cake. But when it coms to kinetic elements of the game like his effort and versatility, those are the attributes that will be required and keep everything intact. His third quarter and game in its entirety against Dallas was a perfect example of why.
“His activity, his energy, him getting us extra possessions, him getting us big defensive rebounds...that’s a tall task to try and manage,” Darvin Ham said of Vanderbilt. “That’s why he’s here, to create havoc.”