In a season with plenty of struggles for Austin Reaves, the first half of Wednesday’s game against the Clippers felt like the low point. Even after making his first shot of the night, Reaves continued his big slump to start the year.
He airballed one of his two 3-point attempts. He struggled to stay in front of either Russell Westbrook or Paul George. On any normal night, he would likely have been pulled or, at least, had his minutes reduced. But the Lakers, in the midst of an injury crisis, could not afford to do so.
And then, midway through the third quarter, seemingly sparked by nothing, Austin Reaves got his groove back.
After knocking down a mid-range basket off an out-of-bounds play, Reaves crossed over Norman Powell, dropped him to the court, hit a second straight jumper and the switch was seemingly flipped.
Following a first half in which he shot 1-5 from the field and 0-2 from the 3-point line for two points, Reaves bounced back by shooting 4-8 in the second half and overtime, scoring 13 points and making big plays down the stretch. He fought for rebounds, helped get defensive stops and, for the first time this season, looked like the Reaves of last year.
“It felt really good to see a shot go in,” Reaves said postgame. “Made my first one then I missed like six in a row but coming off the ball screen middle jumper and then the baseline jumper, it just felt good. Shoutout to (D’Angelo Russell) for constantly being in my ear this whole time like ‘Forget all of it. You’re a really good basketball player. Don’t let that slip. You go do what you’re supposed to do.’ Like I said, you go through stretches like this and you fight your way out and that’s what I’m doing.”
The surest sign that Reaves was back was that the Lakers were deferring to him down the stretch. In overtime, Reaves had an and-one jumper, set up LeBron James for a thunderous alley-oop, hit a mid-range jumper and knocked down a pair of free throws all between the 3:37 mark and the 48-second mark.
Even the possessions the Lakers were coming up empty included Reaves making the right plays. The best example of that was the final offensive possession in which he found Cam Reddish open with a cross-court pass for a 3-pointer that he missed before Christian Wood’s emphatic, game-sealing dunk.
“I’m sure he’s relieved seeing the ball go in the basket,” Darvin Ham said postgame. “But, he’s out there trying to make the right plays. He’s fearless, taking all contact, trying to make the right reads whether it’s for him to score or set up a teammate and just compete hard on the other end. You see him jumping up trying to get his hands on defensive rebounds. That’s what it is.
“When you struggle, I just tell people to fall back on your principles and our team principles are just being highly competitive, being on the same page together with your teammates and just hold yourself accountable and try not to make the same mistake twice and he embodies all that. His teammates showing him love, giving him love, everybody in the building just constantly encouraging him to be aggressive and assertive and he did it tonight and we needed every bit of it.”
Bron and AD celebrate the W with Austin Reaves pic.twitter.com/OLf2OMiUSZ— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 2, 2023
Reaves has looked clearly fatigued to start the season, which isn’t ideal. But a summer of playing for Team USA has caught up to him. It’s never been a lack of effort with Reaves to start the season, though, and his teammates have noticed.
“What I’ve seen is someone that had a long playoff run and then played a lot of basketball in the summer,” LeBron said. “It’s going to take a little bit for his legs to get back to what he needs them. But the competitiveness and what he brings to our team goes without question. Couldn’t care less if he’s not making shots because he does so many other things on the floor as well.
“Even tonight, he didn’t shoot like he would like to shoot, didn’t make any of his threes he’s accustomed to making and still chipped in with eight boards and seven assists and timely shots down the stretch. He’s still a big time player for us. He’s one of our key guys that we need to play well even if he doesn’t make shots and that’s what makes him really good because he doesn’t need to make shots to be effective.”
There have been a lot of concerns about the start of the season for the Lakers as they haven’t looked much like the version of the team that made the Western Conference Finals last season. But for all of the finger-pointing toward rotations and rebounding and everything in between, it’s likely not a coincidence that Reaves finding his footing coincided with arguably the best half the Lakers have played this season.
Reaves playing better does not suddenly fix the issues the Lakers have. It does, however, offer them more cushion in each game to find those answers. It’s not a guarantee he’s out of his slump after Wednesday’s game but it does mean the version Reaves that was so important to last season’s run is still there and right at the surface.
And the sooner his groove is completely back, the sooner the Lakers can look more like the team everyone expected them to be this season.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.