DALLAS — As he tried processing the question, Jordan Hill let out a heavy sigh.
The Lakers had just lost 123-104 Tuesday to the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center, and the reason hardly providing any shred of defense. If that sounds familiar, it should. As the Lakers (2-3) complete the first week of the NBA season, all of their losses stem back to this issue. So it had to be asked.
What’s it going to take for the Lakers to show some consistency in this area? Hill then sighed, signaling his frustration with a deeply rooted issue that the Lakers have failed to solve.
“It’s a heart thing,” Hill said. “They’re a great offensive team and we knew that from the jump. We should’ve buckled down at the start of the game. We didn’t, and they took advantage of it.”
The Mavericks sure did.
They scored 67 first-half points. They went 13 of 27 from three-point range. They outmanuevered the Lakers inside with 52 points in the paint.
“Our defense did not have the necessary toughness and not the necessary concentration on what we’re doing,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni. “There were so many breakdowns.”
The most egregious one involved Mavericks guard Monte Ellis. His 30 points on 11 of 16 shooting featured Ellis driving to the basket with ease. He didn’t score all the time in those instances. But no matter. Ellis then just punished the Lakers on open mid-range jumpers. It became so bad that Ellis’ output nearly eclipsed the production from the Lakers’ starting lineup (32 points).
“Monte Ellis was living in our paint tonight,” Lakers guard Steve Nash said. “We have to do a better job closing down thoes lanes and closing down those opportunities. He got in there way too easy.”
If only it were easy for the Lakers to shore up their defense.
Through five games, the Lakers’ defense have allowed an average of 109 points per game (29th overall out of 30 NBA teams) on 47.98 percent shooting (27th) and on 28.2 assists (30th). Whether it was Golden State’s Klay Thompson exploding for a career-high 39 points, Atlanta’s Kyle Korver making all six of his three-point attempts or Ellis operating as if he’s in a pick-up game, the Lakers aren’t prepared keying in on the opponent’s top scorers.
“We have to do a better job on locking up and we communicate,” Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. “If we give something up, it has to be a contested jump shot and not a layup or a dunk and not give up second chance points. That may happen with smaller lineups. We have to find out what works best for us. But at the same time, we have to communicate and make it tough for opponents in the process.”
Of course, D’Antoni prefers smaller lineups, opting for a streaky Shawne Williams because of his preference for floor spacing and speed. But with Williams posting a quiet two points on two field-goal attempts, D’Antoni gave more opportunities to Hill, who started in the second half. He may have posted eight points on 3 of 5 shooting and three rebounds in 15 minutes. But the presence made little difference for one specific reason.
“They have a lot of shooters out there,” Hill said. “So guys were probably scared to leave their shooters. But I’d rather them take a shot than a layup. That’s something we have to work on.”
Easier said than done, especially when the Lakers haven’t showed the energy needed to overcome the fluctuating lineups and departures this offseason from Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace to offset the difference.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org