February 23, 2024

Jalen Brunson, whose stellar play is one of the best stories in the NBA this season, pounded the ball into the Madison Square Garden court, looking for an opening to get to one of his mid-range shooting spots, where he’s become one of the league’s most dangerous scorers.

Had it not been for a fluky step two nights before in Boston, Jarred Vanderbilt would’ve been the Laker tasked with stopping Brunson, the team’s rangy long-armed forward usually drawing the toughest defensive assignments.

Instead as the game progressed Saturday night, the Lakers used Taurean Prince … and Austin Reaves. Or Prince … and Max Christie or LeBron James or whoever to try to force the ball out of Brunson’s hands, the Lakers aggressively double-teaming their way to a dominant fourth quarter during which the Knicks scored only 10 points before breaking through for a handful more in the final minute, with the outcome already decided.

“Just in tune with what we wanted to do on a possession-by-possession basis,” James said of that stretch in the fourth quarter. “We were flying around. We were communicating, we were helping each other.”

People familiar with the situation paint a fairly bleak picture for Vanderbilt’s future this season, with his year likely over. The Lakers have not offered a full diagnosis for his foot injury, but no one is holding out too much hope he will return.

With the NBA’s trade deadline coming Thursday, the Lakers will be on the hunt for a player who can pick up the defensive slack in place of Vanderbilt.

Brooklyn’s Dorian Finney-Smith is a coveted 3-and-D wing. Chicago’s Alex Caruso is a player on most contenders’ wish list. Brooklyn’s Royce O’Neal and Toronto’s Bruce Brown are also defensive-minded forwards, but at this point in the trade market costs are still high.

As the Lakers weigh their options, the possibility of keeping their 2029 first-round draft pick at the deadline and possibly using it next offseason when they could potentially package three firsts on draft night remains appealing.

Internally, sound team defense and improved effort and communication can help.

Keep doing what we’re doing. Keep talking,” Anthony Davis said. “Honestly, losing one of our biggest defensive presences is tough, but guys got to step up and take the challenge. I think any one-on-one matchup you got to take personal. That’s how you get better — take it personal.”

In wins over Boston and New York, two of the best teams in the East, the Lakers took steps toward reestablishing some defensive identity.

“Last couple games, we said to ourselves, we need to get back to a defensive mindset, get back to getting stops,” coach Darvin Ham said Saturday. “We were able to do that Thursday and again tonight.”

Still, as of Sunday morning, the Lakers were 15th in defensive efficiency — a far cry from their league-leading defense following last season’s NBA trade deadline.

In an effort to keep more athleticism and defense on the court, the Lakers used Christie to close the game — one possible internal option should the deadline come and go without an upgrade.

“He’s a long, athletic wing that can really defend and chase,” Ham said of Christie. “His length, his ability to contest, these are great minutes and situations for him to be in for his confidence and his maturation process. I just thought he was phenomenal. And he stayed aggressive. And that’s the thing I’ve just been preaching to him. Don’t worry about making mistakes. If you go aggressive, there’s no such thing as an aggressive mistake.”

The Lakers close their six-game Grammy trip Monday in Charlotte.

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