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Malik Monk explodes to lead Lakers past Hawks

Malik Monk, Avery Bradley, Talen Horton-Tucker and Carmelo Anthony all had stellar performances in the Lakers’ wire-to-wire victory over Atlanta.

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NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers’ small-ball offense worked to near-perfection, while Malik Monk (and several other role players) stepped up in major ways as the purple and gold took down Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks 134-118 for one of their better wins of the season.

The Lakers had four scorers with over 20 points — LeBron James, Avery Bradley, Monk and Talen Horton-Tucker — and the team looked as comfortable on offense as they have all season.

The Lakers surged to a double-digit lead in the first half as their small-ball strategy dominated Atlanta until a late run in the second quarter narrowed the lead to just three at halftime.

With the Hawks selling out to neutralize James and Russell Westbrook, L.A.’s two superstar ballhandlers combined for 14 assists before halftime (!) as Bradley and Monk took turns catching fire, with 16 and 21 points in the first half, respectively. Both guards were white-hot from long range early, combining to go 8-10 from the 3-point line in the first two periods.

LeBron and Russ both started out cold, but while Westbrook struggled all night, The King caught fire late to close out the Hawks, scoring 17 in the fourth quarter alone, finishing with a team-high 32 points. Russ just missed another triple-double before fouling out with a little under five minutes left in the game, finishing with 9 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists, and a team-high plus-minus of +22.

James also added four steals to pass Alvin Robertson for 10th in the NBA’s all-time steals list, per Lakers PR (h/t to our own Cooper Halpern).

But it was, as has been the case often lately, Monk who shined brightest. The third-year guard finished with a season-high 29 points — nearly reaching his career-high of 36 — and continuing his hot play of late. Entering Friday, the former Charlotte Hornet was averaging 20.7 points per game in six games since returning from the NBA’s health and safety protocols on Christmas. He punctuated that performance by flying in for a stellar putback dunk off a missed three from Bradley.

Talen Horton-Tucker also had a phenomenal night with 21 points, as his confidence and passing ability looked as good as it has at any point this season. He provided a couple of highlight-reel plays in the third quarter with a monster tomahawk dunk and then a beautiful alley-oop to James soon after.

The downsides of the Lakers’ small-ball approach on the defensive end were apparent, though, especially as Anthony Davis remains sidelined with a knee sprain and Trevor Ariza tries to work his way back into playing shape after an ankle surgery and COVID-19 have derailed most of his season to this point. The Hawks’ pick-and-roll game feasted on the Lakers’ undersized defensive front, as Young finished with 25 points and 14 assists while John Collins, Clint Capela and L.A. native Onyeka Okongwu all scored in double digits.

Despite the Lakers playing about as good as can be expected on offense, it took them all four quarters to fully pull away from the Hawks, who made several runs to stay in the game until finally running out of gas late.

Still, if you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic about the 2021-22 Lakers, tonight provided plenty. After so much chaos to begin the season as Frank Vogel and the coaching staff dealt with myriad injuries and inconsistency to find a lineup that works, the Lakers seem to have found a solution, at least for now.

With James at center and Stanley Johnson providing capable wing defense alongside him in the starting frontcourt, the Lakers are now able to space the floor for LeBron and Russ. Bradley, whose contract was guaranteed earlier today, has gone from emergency depth signing to invaluable role player against all odds in his second stint with the Lakers, as his ability to make the right cut at the right time — as well as knock down enough shots from outside to make defenses respect him — makes him a much-needed fit alongside James and Westbrook.

Monk, meanwhile, looks like the steal of the offseason as he continues to realize the potential as a scorer that made him the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft out of Kentucky. Returning former SoCal high school hoops legend Stanley Johnson, meanwhile, provides the much-needed wing defense to give the Lakers time to get Ariza and Davis — their intended starting frontcourt who has yet to play a singe minute alongside each other — back up to speed.

Additionally, the oddball bench unit of Carmelo Anthony, Austin Reaves and THT looks increasingly comfortable in their roles as well, able to provide the floor spacing and ball-handling necessary to keep the offense humming when their numbers are called. Though L.A.’s defense still has plenty of holes, their offense has been so good under the new small-ball approach that it may not matter against most opponents.

This victory means the team is still undefeated (4-0) with their new starting lineup of James, Monk, Bradley, Westbrook and Johnson, and have won four games in a row — their longest winning streak of the season, and five of their last six — to move to 21-19 on the year.

They will now have one day off before hosting the Memphis Grizzlies at The Crypt on Sunday.

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