One day later and it’s no easier to fathom the circumstances that led to the Lakers opening their return to the playoffs with a victory against the team with the best home record in the NBA this season in the Grizzlies.
It was not a herculean performance from the ageless LeBron James. It was not an out-of-this-world two-way game from Anthony Davis, though he was certainly a force defensively. It wasn’t even a red-hot shooting game from D’Angelo Russell.
No, it was Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves, one a mid-season acquisition and one in his first-ever playoff game.
Hachimura caught fire from the 3-point line in the third quarter and carried the Lakers offensively for a good chunk of the second half. But with the game on the line, the team handed the ball to Reaves.
This wasn’t simply him hitting open 3-pointers created by Russell or playing a two-man game with LeBron. No, this was the ball in his hands running high screen-and-rolls with Anthony Davis and LeBron James serving as a bystander on the wing.
Typing that sentence felt surreal. It’s a moment that is hard to fully grasp. Yet, it really happened! Let’s rewatch those possessions and see how Reaves put the stamp on a huge Lakers win.
We’ll pick this up not at a Reaves ball screen possession, but his most absurd pass of the season.
The ball is entered to Davis and FOUR Grizzlies defenders run at him. He smartly kicks it across the court to Reaves who lets Brooks fly by on the closeout, attacks the rim and then does something few people have the audacity to even try.
A pinpoint behind-the-back pass to a spotted-up Rui with the shot clock winding down late in the fourth quarter of a two-point playoff game.
Presumably, the Lakers were so blown away by the notion he would try that pass that they gave him the ball for a high ball screen on the next possession.
Obviously, for Lakers fans, this isn’t new to see Reaves running pick and rolls. But, again, the moment can’t be overstated. There’s a big difference doing it against the Rockets in a January regular season game and in the playoffs.
But it was those regular-season moments that helped him gain the trust and belief of the Lakers — namely LeBron and head coach Darvin Ham — to put him in that position on Sunday.
On the play, he comes off the screen and Jaren Jackson Jr. is playing drop coverage. Reaves, who shot 51% on midrange shots and ranked in the 91st percentile on them according to Cleaning The Glass, takes what’s given and hits the elbow jumper.
What’s important to note is this is an unbroken sequence of possessions. The Lakers didn’t intermittently give him the ball between LeBron possessions. It was almost strictly getting the ball to Reaves.
This time, Tyus Jones does a good job of getting over the screen and making it difficult for Reaves. He probes the screen, navigates around a lunging JJJ and then takes advantage of the big man falling over with a layup.
His ability to keep a defender in jail — the act of keeping a defender behind him using his body when coming off a screen — and probing the lane amidst traffic to find his opening to take advantage of is something you’d expect out of a 10-year veteran, not a second-year player.
With it clear that Reaves is their go-to guy, the Grizzlies adjust by putting Desmond Bane, a bigger defender, on him for the next possession.
The problem is Bane either didn’t read the scouting report, got caught up in the moment and made a mistake or has a miscommunication with JJJ. He goes under the screen and Reaves gets a wide-open 3-pointer. On non-corner 3-pointers, Reaves shot 42% this season. Giving him this shot was not what Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins wanted.
It was after this moment that things officially became surreal. The next defensive possession, the Lakers get a stop — more a fortunate miss from JJJ — and Rui grabs the rebound. Look at D’Lo and LeBron point to Reaves for Rui to get him the ball.
We’re now at a point where everyone knows what’s coming. D’Lo sets an initial screen to get the smaller Jones switched onto Reaves and get him involved in the action instead of Banes before the AD ball screen.
Jones goes over this time, but as we mentioned, Reaves is great at keeping defenders behind him and cuts in front of Jones to keep him in jail. Dillon Brooks helps somewhat off LeBron, but Reaves dribbles around him as he knows Brooks can’t overcommit on the help with LeBron on the wing.
Again, knowing JJJ is in drop coverage, Reaves jump-stops into the paint and rises up for a jumper. He’s off-balance, but he’s not contested and that’s good enough as the shot bounces around and in.
That’s a type of play you can only make if you’ve had years and years of running pick-and-rolls and not just in the NBA. It’s years of knowing how to manipulate your body around players and into the lane and being comfortable taking shots in different scenarios and situations.
And the end result is a playoff win in one of the most unexpected ways in recent history. A team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis deferred to Austin Reaves, who made sure everyone knew on Sunday that he was Him.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.