It was Oct. 14 in the Lakers final preseason game — a loss to the Sacramento Kings — when Austin Reaves, still trying to carve out a role with the Lakers, went 1-8 from the 3-point line. It was arguably the worst performance of the preseason for an undrafted rookie on the outside looking in and a performance he would rather not have dwelled on.
But Russell Westbrook found him in the locker room afterward and applauded him for continually shooting the ball.
“I’m like ‘What are you talking about? I shot it horrible,’” Reaves recalled on Wednesday. “And he was like ‘Nah, I’m just happy you’re shooting it.’”
Two months later, nearly to the day, Reaves kept shooting it this time on a night that mattered, in a game that mattered, in a moment that mattered. Reaves knocked down a career-high five 3-pointers on Wednesday in Dallas, the last of which came with just 0.9 seconds left to give the Lakers a 107-104 victory in overtime.
It’s not the culmination of Reaves’ story — far from it — but it’s a shining moment of how far Reaves has come in such a short time, from undrafted to two-way contract to end of the bench to knocking down game-winners on the road on a nationally televised game.
“It’s basically been the story of my life,” Reaves said. “I’ve always been underrated. Didn’t go to a big high school so didn’t get recruited much. But at the end of the day, you have to produce on the basketball court. For me to hit that shot, for my teammates to have the trust in me to take that shot is very, very special.”
Reaves has been another diamond in the rough for the Lakers. But as has been the case with this iteration of the Lakers, a hamstring injury sidelined him for nearly three weeks in November. He had slowly begun working his way into the rotation once again, ramping up to 28 and 25 minutes in the Lakers previous two games against the Thunder and Magic, respectively, before Wednesday.
With Malik Monk and Talen Horton-Tucker finding themselves placed in health and safety protocols, Reaves was called upon to step up again, playing 32 minutes. He answered the ball time and time again, hitting his first four 3-pointers of the night in a bath-and-forth battle against the undermanned Mavericks.
No shot, though, was bigger than the last one of the game. Tied in the final seconds of overtime — and in a moment of poetry — it was Westbrook who drove the lane kicked to an open Reaves. With no option but to shoot, the rookie guard hoisted through a foul from Dallas’ Tim Hardaway Jr. and connected with less than a second left.
“It was a big-time shot,” Davis said. “It’s just a testament to all the hard work he’s putting in, the confidence he has in himself, the confidence we have in him. He’s a sponge. He soaks up all the information that we give him and he wants more and he wants to get better. He’s not afraid of the moment. It shows right there.
“He’s a hard worker, he plays hard, he does the right things. We get on him during the game. He’s right there, accepting the criticism, accepting the help and applying it on the floor. Great pass by Russ, great shot by Austin. Didn’t even hit the net. Huge, huge shot for him.”
It wasn’t pretty for the Lakers on Wednesday, who needed an extra five minutes to beat a Luka Doncic-less Dallas team. But with wins so hard to come by at times this season, the Lakers can’t afford to be picky in how they earn them.
And it was earned on Wednesday. They needed an improbable Wayne Ellington 3-pointer, moments after he airballed a long-range effort, in the final seconds of regulation to force overtime. It was a Westbrook corner 3-pointer that preceded Reaves’ game-winner, but that only came after Westbrook’s own airballed shot from range.
Fortunately for the Lakers, Reaves only needed one try at his shot.
“I didn’t care if I scored or Russ scored or Bron scored, like I just wanted to win the game,” Reaves said. “That’s really all that matters, if we win or not. But it happened that the ball came to me with a couple seconds (left). I didn’t have an opportunity to do anything else. I had to shoot it.”
Reaves credited the “confidence instilled” in him through Westbrook’s insistence on shooting. Westbrook, in his 14th year, knows the importance of having confidence in teammates, old or young.
“When you’ve been in this league a long time, you understand that there’s going to be nights when you miss shots,” Westbrook said. “But Austin is a hell of a shooter as you guys seen tonight and from day one, I just always told him ‘Stay positive. You can’t react when you make or miss shots. Everybody’s not going to make every single shot every single night and that’s a part of the game. As long as keep putting in work, when the time (comes) when it counts, you’re going to keep making big shots.’
“Tonight was one of those nights and I’m just happy to be able to enjoy that moment with him.”
It was a night when Reaves was needed, a night when he found himself open time and time again. It was a night he just kept shooting it.