It’s the fourth quarter and the Lakers are in a tight game vs. the Grizzlies. Winless on the season and staring at a potentially disastrous 0-3 start, the team is having trouble containing the Grizz’s dynamic young point guard, Ja Morant, who is absolutely dazzling with his forays to the paint and improved shotmaking from beyond the arc.
The Lakers, though, have their own matchup problem in 19-year veteran Carmelo Anthony. On this night, Melo is cooking, and there’s little the Grizz can do to slow him down.
With 10:51 left in that final period, Melo gets a pass at the top of the key, pump fakes, then drains a one-dribble, pull-up 20-footer to tie the game at 92. A couple of possessions later, Austin Reaves drives and kicks to a spotting up Melo in the right corner. Melo catches, shoots, and drains a 3-pointer to break a 94-all tie. The very next play, LeBron handles the ball on the right side, surveys the court and throws a skip pass to a spotting up Melo on the left wing. Again, Melo catches, releases, and splashes home a triple to put the Lakers up by six points.
Melo ended the night with a team-high 28 points, and his 12 points in that fateful fourth quarter drove home his value to this team. Everyone understands it won’t be this way every night, but when it is, you ride the wave and collect the W.
“Wow!”. That was the single word exclaimed by Lakers announcer Stu Lantz when Malik Monk had the audacity to pull up from nearly 30 feet and fire a long jumper. Under normal circumstances, not constrained by stringent FCC regulations, I’m not sure Stu would have reacted this exact way, but these aren’t normal circumstances.
No, at that moment, the Lakers were down by 1 point with only a minute left in the fourth quarter against the Spurs. After clawing their way back from down 12 to start the period, the Lakers are now in a position to take the lead with a solid offensive possession.
Monk, unfazed by the situation at hand and (seemingly) not really concerned about time and score, or feeling the weight of how valuable this possession was, did what Melo had done just two nights before: He let it fly.
Rondo had just set a screen for him and simultaneously signaled for AD to give Monk the ball. When AD obliged, Monk got all the reassurance he needed in that moment — as if his confidence even needed the boost in the first place. Monk finished the game with 17 points, but none were bigger than those 3. He also finished the night +31 in a game the Lakers ended up winning by 4.
Like with Melo, it’d be silly to believe performances to these extremes are going to happen nightly. But, also like Melo, that the Lakers have this in their arsenal at all is proving to be very useful in this young season.
From the time I started following the NBA as a kid, the idea of the gunner who comes off the bench as a spark for the offense has been a staple. Way back then, it was “The Microwave” Vinnie Johnson from those old Bad Boys Pistons teams who epitomized this role. Johnson’s nickname was apt: he’d come in the game cold as a sub for Joe Dumars or Isiah Thomas, but then get hot quickly and, in the process, pour in the points. (As an aside, that the Lakers are now calling Monk this same nickname only plays up that they see him this way.)
Over the years, the idea of the reserve scoring specialist has become a normal sight on most NBA teams. Up and down nearly every roster you’ll find someone whose sole job description is to come off the bench and put points on the board — with the very best of them usually winning the 6th Man of the Year Award. From Jamal Crawford to Lou Williams to Jordan Clarkson, getting buckets off the bench doesn’t just get you accolades, but also lucrative contracts.
This past offseason the Lakers didn’t have one of those lucrative contracts to hand out, but they were still in the market for one of these players. And, lucky for them, they not only signed one, but two of them — and both for the veteran’s minimum.
Now, to be clear, we should not oversell the utility of these players or make them out to be better than what they are. Both Monk and Melo make the minimum for a reason (though it can be argued Monk should be making more). Both are (at-best) limited defensive players, and both embrace the idea that making bad shots can be a positive on your resumé — and that in order to make them, you have to take some — hurting their overall efficiency in the process.
There’s also the strong argument that players of this type have a harder time maintaining their effectiveness in the playoffs. In the hyper-specific and more thorough gameplans of the postseason, players whose weaknesses are this well defined can be schemed against on a nightly basis and targeted by better teams (both offensively and defensively). When this happens, their effectiveness tends to dip dramatically, and they simply become less useful over a large enough sample against the best teams in the league.
That said, the argument for these players at all plays into this idea of their streakiness and penchant to run hot and cold. Remember, Melo was crucial in helping the Lakers beat the Grizzlies, but just a game later he was not very effective at all against the Spurs game that Monk came up big in. Then, in OKC, neither player was particularly good, and both shot airballs down the stretch when the Lakers had the chance to snatch back a game they’d embarrassingly given away.
My point is neither player should be depended on in a major way this season, but both can still win you a game should they start to feel it and/or find the right matchup they can exploit on that given night. Not to mention, their ability to shoot the ball with range can have a very positive effect on the spacing the Lakers stars thrive on. This, whether in the regular season, or in the playoffs, can be extremely valuable.
So I’m thankful the Lakers have both on this team, even though I understand both are likely going to frustrate me more than once over the course of the season. Because, as they’ve already shown in this very young season, both are also more than capable of taking, and making, the types of shots that can turn a game in the Lakers favor. In what is shaping up to be a wild regular season, that’s something this team might just need more of than even they thought they would when they signed both players.