In a different scenario, with a different player on the ball, the ending of the Lakers game may have played out in a different way. As LeBron James drove to the rim on Sunday with the shot clock running down and the game clock nearing the final 10 seconds, he kicked out to an open Austin Reaves 3-pointer that found the bottom of the net and sealed the win.
It was a signature moment in a growing list of them for Reaves as well as a different kind of signature moment in a long list of them for LeBron. Always one to make the right play late in games, LeBron never once considered forcing up a contested jumper but instead drew the defense and found the open player, helping the Lakers seal a .500 record on their road trip.
It’s the type of play that he’s been criticized for before when the shots don’t fall from his teammates, but it’s never deterred him from making them. And when it comes to his teammates, it gives them a sense of expectation for how the closing moments in games will play out.
“I don’t have to scream in my head or out loud or anything,” Reaves said, via Spectrum SportsNet. “I think LeBron’s been very criticized his whole career for making the right basketball play late in games instead of forcing a shot. So, you know when you’re playing with him that he’s going to make the right basketball play and that’s what you want your leader to do, one of your best players to do. You know when you’re on the court in that situation, it could come to you. You just have to stay locked in and make a shot.”
For a Lakers team that has constantly turned over players during his tenure, LeBron continually having trust in them is both a driving force and empowering to teammates, particularly when they’re new to the roster. In theory, at least, it allows the Lakers to adapt more quickly and build chemistry with one another.
And for a Lakers team this year that has experienced that turnover, getting the reps and having some level of familiarity has been important, as Reaves noted.
“It’s really about playing and getting reps with one another,” Reaves said. “Very new to each other. I don’t know how many games we’re in, 26 or whatever, so late-game situations early in the year were going to be a little shaky just because you haven’t closed a game with three or four guys on the court that hadn’t been here. I think it really just comes to that, comes down to knowing what we want to get into, knowing what everybody likes to do in situations and getting that untalked chemistry together and it feels good.
“There are a lot of things that we can grow on in the fourth and the whole game but as long as we get a win, it doesn’t matter what it looks like.”
On Sunday, all three of the Lakers’ five-man lineups finished with positive net ratings. The closing lineup of LeBron, Reaves, Anthony Davis, Dennis Schröder and Lonnie Walker IV had a net rating of +10 in five minutes. That unit is the second-most used five-man lineups in fourth quarters and has a net rating of +45.3 in 18 minutes. Ironically, that lineup has only ever been used in fourth quarters this season so far.
As Reaves notes, the Lakers will continue to stockpile reps and minutes and games to build that chemistry and camaraderie late in games. Having a baseline of expectation from LeBron and knowing he’ll always make the right basketball play, as he did on Sunday, will go some way in helping them build that familiarity.