Los Angeles Lakers rookie Talen Horton-Tucker scored the same amount of field goals last night as Houston Rockets star James Harden. If this was a regular season game, that stat would make you think that Horton-Tucker had just put up the type of numbers that would instantly vault him into Rookie of the Year consideration, but because of Harden’s habit of wilting every time his team needs him in the NBA playoffs, it just meant the rookie had scored two baskets.
But while that’s not great for a player who considers himself to be an MVP contender, it is pretty solid for a 19-year-old playing their first seven minutes off the bench in the NBA playoffs. When Horton-Tucker entered in the second quarter, the Lakers were up 28-24. By the time he exited, they were up 49-36, and while it clearly wasn’t all his play that led to that, he acquitted himself well, and the whole team — including LeBron James — going absolutely bananas for the rookie on the bench undoubtedly gave the Lakers an energy boost.
“I was proud of Talen Horton-Tucker for coming in in his first playoff minutes and playing really well. He’s got a bright future with us. He gave us a big lift in that first half,” said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel after the game.
Horton-Tucker looked overeager at times, sort of like a thicker Russell Westbrook that had just taken a five-hour energy shot, most notably when he took a heat-check three from Damian Lillard range and hopped around like a puppy in the corner when he was open for a pass. He was also hardly perfect defensively, but he just injected a dose of fun into the game, and was reasonably productive under the circumstances. He didn’t play in the second half, and finished the night with 5 points on 2-5 shooting, and was a +9 in a game the Lakers won by 10 points (To take it back to the intro, Harden went 2-11 but scored 21 points because he got 20 free throws).
Horton-Tucker’s teammates loved what they saw from the youngest player in the NBA.
“We got Rook in the game today and he was huge in his first stint in the postseason,” James said. “I thought Rook was really good tonight, coming in and giving us some huge minutes when [Markieff Morris] got in foul trouble.”
“In his first playoff game, in a big game, he comes in and plays extremely well on both ends of the floor,” added Anthony Davis. “We’re all so happy for him.”
Horton-Tucker got a lot of buzz during the Lakers’ mini training camp before the league’s restart at Disney World. Vogel even said he’d made a case for minutes, although his playing time evaporated after the seeding round until Thursday night. Still, that familiarity — experience with Horton-Tucker that the Lakers didn’t really get much this year while he developed in the G League and spent much of training camp not in NBA shape — left Vogel confident that Horton-Tucker could do some positive things if given the team’s bonus bench wing minutes that were thus far going to Dion Waiters (injured) and J.R. Smith (ineffective).
Vogel admitted that Waiters would have gotten that second-quarter playing time again had he not hurt his groin, but his loss was Horton-Tucker’s opportunity to prove himself. From the sound of it, he passed with flying colors.
“He played exceptionally well, and none of us were surprised,” Vogel said, saying that despite the rookie not playing in games, Vogel has consistently been monitoring his progress in pickup games at practice.
“He’s a talented kid. He’s unafraid. He’s played beyond his years. When we started to go small or smaller, starting Markieff, we knew we had some minutes there to get another wing in there,” Vogel said. “I just wanted to give Talen a chance because he continued to prove himself in practice and I like what he brings to the table.”
How many more chances Horton-Tucker will get to show that in the playoffs remains to be seen. But for one night, he was a more efficient shooter than a former MVP. Not bad for his first postseason minutes.