Austin Reaves spent the last two seasons rising up from an undrafted rookie to a legitimate role player for the Lakers. But for most casual NBA fans, it wasn’t until he took a true, front-and-center national stage of the NBA Playoffs that they saw the player he had become.
Game 1 against the Memphis Grizzles in the opening round of the playoffs will serve as a memorable moment in Reaves’ career for many reasons. It was the day he introduced himself to that national audience and, in his words, changed his relationship with LeBron James for the better.
The recent profile from Mirin Fader of The Ringer talked about that Game 1 performance and how it all took Reaves by surprise.
Reaves thought about how much more he’d be able to grow playing alongside James and Davis. He thought about how much head coach Darvin Ham trusted him, and how much faith his teammates also had in him during the playoffs, handing him the ball in clutch situations. On one play, during Game 1 against Memphis, he ran to the corner when James caught an outlet pass. James told him to come back and get the ball. Reaves didn’t understand: Why would James, who could blow past anybody, any time, give up the ball to him? “My brain left the game for a second,” Reaves says. And then he thought: I can’t make him look stupid. I’ve got to make something good happen. Muscle memory took over, and he scored a flurry of baskets.
That was a much-abbreviated version of a longer answer he gave while appearing on The Lowe Post podcast by Zach Lowe of ESPN when asked a similar question. Lowe discussed with Reaves his relationship with LeBron and if the two ever had a discussion for Reaves to take more responsibility.
“There was no real conversation off the court or anything. I always knew that, from day one, we connected on that IQ level. Just thinking the game differently than other people do. The one that stood out for me was, it was in the playoffs, was Game 1 against Memphis when I had the really good fourth quarter. I struggled in the first half…and then got it going in the fourth.
Reaves then went on to recall the series of plays, in quite a lengthy manner, of that fourth quarter that led to his “I’M HIM” moment. Fader described the moment with far brevity than Reaves, though he did note to Lowe that he “could tell the trust level was even more than what I knew it was at that point” following that playoff performance.
He also went on to share a cool story of the day after Game 1 during the film session.
“I just remember the next day...we had film and Phil Handy congratulated me for the game that I had. But then he looked around and was just like ‘I just want to basically say to LeBron and AD, I haven’t seen ya’ll do that in a while. I haven’t seen ya’ll put ya’ll’s trust in another player like that. Especially in this big time moment. I just want to tip my hat to ya’ll.’ That was another point where I was like ‘Oh s—.’ Everything had kind of sunk in at that point.”
LeBron isn’t someone who cedes control of a team or even a postseason game or moment easily. Perhaps his own injury played into him being more willing to do so this past spring, but regardless of the circumstances, Reaves was deserving of having the ball in his hands then.
That moment proved lots of things to lots of people, including LeBron and Reaves themselves. It’s a moment that did and will continue to pay big dividends for the team moving forward.
And it’s the moment Reaves went from the latest Lakers role player with lots of buzz to a bonafide player, setting him up for his even more remarkable summer.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.