His back on the Crytpo.com Arena floor, Austin Reaves looked up toward the rafters and exhaled.
“… finally,” he said.
He’d just made a floater to bestow the Lakers a lead they’d hold until the end of the overtime period. Fouled on the play by Norman Powell, he was about to complete a three-point play.
The 130-125 victory over the Clippers on Wednesday marked a reprieve for Reaves, who has started this season with a debilitating shooting slump. He scored six points late in the third quarter, seven more in overtime and finished with a season-high 15.
“You go through stretches like this, you have to fight your way out,” Reaves said. “That’s what I’m doing.”
The Lakers are counting on it.
He will have to play better than he has for the Lakers to have any chance to win a championship. LeBron James is 38 years old, and they can’t rely on him every night to play 42 minutes and score 35 points, as he did against the Clippers.
Reaves made four of his last eight shots in the Clippers game, but was only five of 13 on the night. For the season, he’s shooting 34.5%. His scoring totals in his previous four games: 14, 10, 5, 11.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham wondered aloud if Reaves was still feeling the aftereffects of the five-plus weeks he spent with Team USA.
“I’m just thinking it’s a lot,” Ham said. “You go all the way to the Western Conference finals, you have a whole summer with Team USA. I think it was about six weeks total that they had together with that group. And then you come in, basically finish with Team USA in September and have to hit the ground running with your normal team. It’s just a just process of him working through it.”
James offered a similar theory.
“It’s gonna take a little bit for his legs to get back under him,” James said.
Fatigue isn’t the only obstacle, however. Reaves is now a marked man.
“Everyone is aware of him now, for sure, after last season, the way he ended it, the summer he had with Team USA,” Ham said. “He’s not sneaking up on anybody. He’s no longer a secret weapon. People are well aware of what he could do.”
On Wednesday, that resulted in Reaves often being guarded in the first half by Paul George, a veteran of four NBA all-defensive teams. Reaves was ineffective.
When Reaves was later reminded of how the Lakers were down by as many as 19 points in the first quarter, he said, “I was probably a reason for that.”
He wasn’t kidding.
Reaves didn’t look like a $54 million player. He looked like a $54 player. He made just one of five shots in the first two quarters. He committed five turnovers before halftime.
The Clippers, Reaves said, “have a good gift of being able to play guys that are, like, 6-8, 6-7, very athletic and know the game. Defensively for them, they make it very hard for teams. They’re in the gaps. They swarm the ball really well and also rotate.”
Reaves encountered a pleasant surprise when he returned from the bench late in the third quarter: Powell was guarding him.
Reaves hit a jumper. He crossed over Powell and sent the Clippers guard crumbling to the floor, after which he hit another jumper. Reaves slipped when he tried to dribble by Powell again, but managed to throw a pass from a seated position to Christian Wood, who sank a three-pointer.
“It felt really good to see a shot go in,” Reaves said.
Reaves mentioned the encouragement he has received from teammate D’Angelo Russell.
“Forget all of it,” Reaves said Russell has told him. “You’re a really good basketball player.”
He finished the quarter by driving to the basket to draw a foul, and making both free throws. The Lakers went into the final period of regulation with an 87-85 lead.
About a minute after his three-point play in overtime, Reaves poked away the ball from Kawhi Leonard. On the ensuing fast break, he flipped a pass over the head of backtracking Clippers point guard Russell Westbrook. A streaking James completed the alley-oop.
The steal was the third for Reaves and the assist was his seventh. He also collected seven rebounds.
Reaves said he was proud to have found ways other than scoring to help the Lakers win, but acknowledged he had to start making shots.
“As an athlete, player, anybody, you want to make shots,” he said. “I hold myself to a high standard when it comes to that but no athlete ever has [gone] through their whole career and played perfect. You have these things happen and you just gotta figure out a way to get through it.”
Reaves has already figured out how to transform himself from an undrafted free agent to a $54 million player. His challenge now is to play up to his contract, to find ways to score when others expect him to.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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