While the Lakers and their fanbase may be very familiar with Austin Reaves and his journey this season, the rest of the NBA world is only just starting to learn his name and impact, with Wednesday serving as a catapult in that regard in several ways.
Starting with a profile from Mirin Fader of The Ringer early in the day and ending with a game-winning shot against the Mavericks in overtime on national television, Reaves became far more of a household name on Wednesday alone than he possibly ever could have imagined even just a night before.
In-between those two moments, though, Dallas got an unexpected taste of Reaves ability on the basketball court.
As he’s carved out a role doing a bit of everything for the Lakers this season, Reaves impact on the defensive end has been what’s most noticeable at times, largely because of how much the team struggled on that end of the court to start the year. While the team has progressed defensively — now ranking 11th in defensive rating after Wednesday’s win — Reaves’ impact on that end hasn’t wavered.
Against the Mavericks, specifically, it was Reaves’ nearly-perfect 5-6 shooting from the 3-point line that drew the headlines, but his work on the defensive end is what helped him stay on the court to be able to knock down that game-winning three.
“It was clear,” head coach Frank Vogel said when asked what led to him going with the undrafted rookie to close the game. “He was playing exceptional on both ends. That’s what we love about him. He’s a two-way player. Guys in this league don’t recognize him, so they think they can target him but he’s a really good defender with good length and good feet and so it was an easy decision when he’s defending at a high level.”
In Fader’s profile, it was an opponent tendency multiple people — from one of Reaves’ representatives, Reggie Berry, to Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy — pointed out.
“He’s just very unassuming,” Handy said. “A lot of people look at him, ‘OK, who is this? Who is this white kid on the Lakers?’”
“You get a white guy out there, more often than not, the brothers are going to go at his head,” Berry added. “But, with Austin … if you watch him hoop, he’s not going for that shit.”
And while on the surface these quotes feel a bit tongue-in-cheek about teams not recognizing him, or just wanting to pick on the skinny white rookie, the film from Wednesday doesn’t lie: The Mavs clearly were not expecting Reaves to be able to stop them defensively, particularly late in the game.
Tim Hardaway Jr. tried multiple times late in the game to iso on Reaves to no avail. Below, Reaves does a great job staying in front of him, then does a really good job of contesting at the rim without fouling.
On the next possession, a number of Mavericks take a shot at Reaves as they rotate through switches.
Eventually, Kristaps Porzingis gets the switch late and, despite a really nice contest from Reaves, Porzingis is too tall and long and scores over the top of him.
On the very next possession, it was once again Reaves who was at the top of the Lakers’ defense. Russell Westbrook and Reaves switched seamlessly before Jalen Brunson tried to throw up a wild, contested shot that both Reaves and Westbrook defended well in a possession where a stop was imperative.
Those three stops, all of which directly involved Reaves on successive possessions, helped the Lakers eventually get to overtime. There, it was a new Maverick who had a go at Reaves.
In Dorian Finney-Smith’s defense, he wasn’t specifically targeting Reaves, but more the situation the defense was in. But Reaves recovered in transition, forced Finney-Smith a bit wider and then, again, contested well at the rim by getting his arms up and not fouling.
The final notable defensive clip had little to do with technique and IQ, and almost everything to do with hustle and determination.
After a fumbled handoff, Reaves dove for the loose ball as Hardaway Jr. chases it down. Because of his effort, Hardaway Jr. wasn’t able to corral it cleanly before an over-and-back violation, and Wayne Ellington was able to intercept the pass, leading directly to a fastbreak and dunk for LeBron James.
The three players Reaves defended most on Wednesday, per NBA’s matchup data, were Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke and Brunson. That trio finished a combined 5/16 from the field with Reaves as the primary defender while going just 2/7 from the 3-point line.
It’s a mixture of the little things — like diving for a loose ball — and terrific skill and technique that makes Reaves such an impressive defender. There are moments where he makes mistakes, many of them related to his youth and inexperience. But his effort covers up a lot of those errors.
“I told him after the game it was a hell of a shot, but really, it was about the whole game that he played,” Vogel said. “He played great defense, he made extra passes, he competed and, obviously, he knocked down big shots when the ball was swung to him. Great way to see him get the W.”
Considering the Lakers current COVID and outbreak situation that has now ruled out Russell Westbrook, Avery Bradley, Talen Horton-Tucker Dwight Howard and Malik Monk, the team will be relying a lot more on Reaves moving forward. Perhaps that opportunity will provide enough film for teams to learn they can’t pick on him defensively. But until they do, the Lakers will certainly be enjoying watching them get what they want, only to quickly realize they’ve made a big mistake.