LOS ANGELES - With the Lakers up by just two at the half and Luka Dončić already clocking in 20 points, it looked like L.A. was in for another close game against a tough Western Conference opponent in the Dallas Mavericks.
However, Darvin Ham and the Lakers had other plans and cooked up a third-quarter masterclass that turned a nail-biter into an easy win.
It started with Ham's bread and butter, defense.
Austin Reaves contested a Kyrie Irving jumper, which fell short, one of 12 misses from Irving on Wednesday as the Lakers threw a bevy of defenders and coverages at him to make things as difficult as possible for the Mavericks star.
Anthony Davis successfully contested a Dončić three and Davis turned defense into offense, scoring on the opposite end to cap off a 14-6 run to start the third, forcing Dallas to call timeout in an attempt to cool down Los Angeles.
"A great defense is the best offense because you got to force turnovers, you're going to force bad shots most times, long, bad, long shots," Ham said after the game. "So those shots, those deflections, those steals, those block shots, they all 90% of the time start the fast break. So you're able to get out and transition and get easy looks, collapse the defense going back the other way. And that opens up your shooters as well as you saw D-Lo, AR getting some really good open looks from three in transition as well as Bron too.”
The Lakers kept turning up the heat as James hit another three from the wing, Taurean Prince had a nice jumper and Russell froze things with a 3-pointer of his own.
The offensive onslaught was a pleasant surprise as the Lakers shot 42.9% from deep, but the key wasn't the red-hot shooting, but holding Dallas to one-shot possessions during this frame.
"Just to again get stops," Ham said after the win. "Get stops hold them to one possession and once we got it, but even if they did make it, to constantly have that rush right back at them once we had the ball and the ball security, us getting stops, holding them to one possession and us taking care of the ball I think was the key factor."
Momentum is hard to narrow down, but it's clear when it's tilting one way and after a back-and-forth first half, the Lakers had momentum in the third.
Ham wasn't passive in the Lakers' success. He mixed the perfect combination of players throughout the quarter. He subbed in Jarred Vanderbilt midway through the third and he opened up his vault and placed all Mavs who dared to attack him inside of it.
WELCOME TO THE VANDO VAULT— GoldenKnight (@GoldenKnightGFX) January 18, 2024
He regularly defended Dončić and Irving, making both work as much as possible to get their shots off. Dončić still found some success, but the effort was taxing and didn't help Dallas go on any run.
With 25 minutes of play and scoring just seven points, if you didn't watch the game, you'd look at Vanderbilt's numbers and not see why he made a big difference. However, Vando is one of those players you have to watch to see his impact.
A play he made at the 1:54 mark in the third is a prime example.
He's defending Grant Williams off the ball but he anticipated the pass and deflected it. Williams was still able to recover, but he had touched the ball in the backcourt, causing a violation that resulted in a turnover. In the following defensive possession, Vando picks up Dončić full court and eventually grabs the rebound off a missed jumper by Hardaway Jr. and Davis ends up getting fouled on the other end of the court, resulting in free throws.
Vanderbilt is the worker bee that slots in perfectly with this team and lets everyone else be great at their jobs. Ham tried to duplicate him in his absence but could never replicate what he provided.
With Vanderbilt back, he's taking on the tough defensive assignments, wreaking havoc on opponents and cleaning up the glass. He had nine rebounds tonight, helping the Lakers win that battle 45-43.
Ham didn't allow the team to take their foot off the gas in the fourth as they continued to outscore and outplay the Mavericks. With 4:44 left in the game, he finally felt comfortable that no fake comeback would threaten this victory and emptied the bench.
The Lakers third quarter catapulted this result, but it's a recipe similar to their victory on Monday against the Thunder and can be replicable moving forward.
If the Lakers bring this energy, start the same group and Ham continues to nail the right pairings off the bench, they can begin to take what's been a disappointing season and turn it into a second-half race toward the top of the West.
"We just got to bottle it up and continue to work at it and go back, look at the film, see what we can do better and try to sustain what we're doing well," Ham said.
They'll have a chance to do it again at home on Friday against the Brooklyn Nets. If they win that game, they'll be 22-21 on the season and tie their longest win streak of the season with three straight victories.
You can follow Edwin on Twitter at @ECreates88.