- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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DALLAS -- Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill are very different individuals who approach the game of basketball very different ways, so it's not shocking they would have different gut reactions when asked about what went wrong with the Los Angeles Lakers' defense Tuesday.
Hill, the boundless bundle of energy -- bone-bruised knee or bum hip be damned -- went in a visceral direction when explaining the letdown.
"It's a heart thing, basically," Hill said of the Lakers' 123-104 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in a game in which the Mavs scored 67 points in the first half, shot 52.1 percent overall, made 13-of-27 3-pointers and outscored L.A. 52-36 in the paint. "They're a great offensive team and we knew that from the jump, so we should have buckled down on them from the start of the game and we didn't and they took advantage of it."
Gasol, the cerebral player who identifies himself as much for his interests outside of basketball, offered a logical explanation.
"We just got to make sure we can't give up all those paint points that we did in the first half," Gasol said, illustrating how all those chippies were like the kindling that allowed Dallas to catch fire. "Then they got comfortable. They got comfortable and they started hitting shots, one shot after another and they shot the ball very well, hitting some tough ones down the stretch. The main thing is we just got to make it uncomfortable for them and not allow them to get easy ones."
If the team can pick up Hill's heart and Gasol's brains on defense, they might just be able to play with the requisite courage to win a game on the road, where they are now 0-2, giving up an average of 124 points against the Mavs and the Golden State Warriors.
"It wasn't the necessary toughness, it wasn't the necessary concentration on what we're doing," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "There was just so many breakdowns."
So far this season, opponents are ripping through them like a wet paper towel, averaging 109.0 points per game on 47.9 percent shooting and 42.4 percent from deep.
Part of it is personnel. Guys such as Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry, Jordan Farmar and Nick Young are all young and athletic with bodies capable of moving the way great defenders move, but none of them have gotten to the point of consistent stopper status.
D'Antoni is still shuffling the rotation, evidenced by Hill starting the second half instead of Shawne Williams, in the hopes of finding a group that clicks together on defense.
"I wanted to try different things," D'Antoni said. "We're still searching, obviously."
But it's unlikely he'll find a true lockdown defender in the group of 15 players he has now.
While the Mavericks could stick do-everything Shawn Marion on Steve Nash to try to cut the head off the snake when it came to L.A.'s offense, there was nobody on the Lakers up to the task of stopping Monta Ellis' penetration, and he sliced and diced his way to 30 points and nine assists, nearly matching the Lakers' starters' total of 32 points.
"He was in the guts of our defense all night," Nash said. "He was getting easy buckets and creating easy buckets for teammates all night. He really spaced us out with his penetration. We have a lot to learn and improve on. I think we took a step back defensively and we really have to look at the film to get better there."
L.A. has aspirations of Johnson someday being a Marion-like defender, able to guard multiple positions, but he's still as far away from that role as the Lakers are from their team goal of being a tough bunch to score on.
"You can't get blown out and then think now we need to learn to win," D'Antoni said. "No, we need to learn how to play. We're not playing right now. We don't come out with the same grit and determination and hopefully it's a learning experience."
If the Lakers have learned anything through their 2-3 start in the first five games is that it's going to take both Hill's and Gasol's way of thinking meshed together and adopted by everyone to make a step forward.
As Hill kept talking about what went wrong on defense, he pointed out a very specific X's-and-O's problem.
"[The Mavericks] have a lot of shooters out there, so it was guys probably just scared to leave their shooters," Hill said, detailing how L.A.'s help defense failed. "Man, I would rather let them take that shot than have somebody take a layup."
And as Gasol kept mulling over the 19-point loss on the road, he became more emotional as he tried to discover a solution.
"We just can't make a habit out of this, out of getting our butts kicked on the road," Gasol said. "Otherwise teams, when we come to their house, they're going to be like, 'Well, we got the Lakers, we're going to kick their ass.' It's just not going to work for us that way. We have to establish ourselves. We have to make ourselves present in the game and let the opponent know that we're there and it's going to be a long night for them."
Brains and heart. That's what will give L.A. the courage it has missing on D.