Austin Reaves has come a long way from a tiny Arkansas town to Lakers 'MVP!'
The moment, Austin Reaves has always felt, can wait. The game comes first, the next play the priority.
Reflection is for later.
It’s a mindset that’s allowed none of this to ever feel too big, that it’s always been possible for someone from a tiny farm town to somehow be peers with the best basketball players in the world.
Like in his unofficial audition with the Lakers during a Las Vegas minicamp, Reaves didn’t stop when he found himself guarding Anthony Davis in the post during the team’s first pickup game.
“In my head, it’s like, ‘Kid, you’re trying to guard me? You need to switch. You serious?’” Davis told The Los Angeles Times. “I get the ball, I back him down and he steals it from me.”
But this one, Sunday night in Los Angeles, it needed to be acknowledged.
As Reaves led the Lakers through the fourth quarter of a must-win game against the Orlando Magic, he flipped the ball into the hoop after drawing a foul. As he flexed and the crowd chanted “M-V-P,” he looked into the stands to find his best friends for more than 20 years, Trent Swaim and Keaton Wheeler, cheering in the sea of Lakers fans.
“It’s almost too good to be true,” Reaves told The Times.
Sunday, he scored a career-high 35 points in the Lakers’ 111-105 win against Orlando, the undrafted guard from a tiny Arkansas town the center of attention in Los Angeles with the friends he cares about most celebrating with him.
“That’s dope as hell,” Davis said.
Reaves showed the different parts of his offensive game. He got to the rim, he left defenders frozen with his footwork and he created space and then contact to get to the free-throw line a career-most 18 times. The Magic, as a team, only shot 17.
Before Reaves electrified the crowd by doing the seemingly unthinkable, Swaim left Reaves impressed by finishing the Los Angeles Marathon in 4 hours 18 minutes despite never having run 26.2 miles before, fighting off leg cramps for the final six-plus miles.
After the race, Swaim waddled into Reaves’ home, took a 30-minute shower and instantly took advantage of the muscle-recovery gear afforded to one of the Lakers’ most valuable players.
Somehow he made it to the game. And somehow, he made it out of his seat as Reaves went off.
“This is the first time Trent’s been in L.A., the first game he’s come to out here,” Reaves said. “For him and Keaton to be here for this...when I got the bucket and it was tied with a minute whatever left, I casually glanced up there. And he ran a marathon this morning, came back in pretty rough shape and couldn’t stand.
“But he was there on his feet, hands in the air. It was almost too good to be true.”
At this point, though, any surprises from Reaves are probably the result of ignorance to his game.
He’s developed strong rapport with Davis and LeBron James in his time with the team, and in this last stretch with James’ sidelined, he’s played some of the best offensive basketball of his NBA career.
His 35-point outburst comes on the heals of seven-straight double-digit scoring games. Since James got injured in Dallas three weeks ago, Reaves has scored fewer than 13 points just once, the Lakers 6-5 in those games.
In the most optimistic on-the-record assessment to date, coach Darvin Ham spoke pregame about “when” James would return, the absence of an “if” being notable.
“Yeah, we anticipate him coming back at some point,” Ham said.
James tweeted that Reaves is “A BAD MUTHA...SHUT YO MOUTH!!! You toooooo TOUGH!!” after the win.
AR YOU A BAD MUTHA...SHUT YO MOUTH!!! You toooooo TOUGH!! 🔥🔥🔥👑
— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 20, 2023
During the game, he smiled as he sat in the chair at the end of the team’s bench, his legs crossed and arms folded over his knee as the crowd serenaded Reaves with “MVP” chants.
“To hear this crowd chanting MVP, it was shaking the whole stadium,” Swaim said. "It was something you see...well, I’ve never seen anything like it. It was insane.”
“Crazy,” Wheeler said while shaking his head.
The win pushed the Lakers (35-37) back into the top 10 in the West, if only by a fraction, after losses to Houston and Dallas zapped the momentum the team has built since the trade deadline.
Needing to stop that losing streak just at two, Reaves scored 13 points in the fourth, including the final 10 for the Lakers to seal the win.
The crowd let Reaves know that no one else was more valuable.
“Obviously not an MVP-caliber player, those guys are really good,” he said, “but for them to do that for me is special, it means a lot to me.”
And it means even more because Reaves’ closest friends got to experience it with him.
“You never want to take it for granted man and he never takes it for granted,” Davis said of Reaves. “He loves the game. He lives in the moment.”
And the moment on Sunday? It’s one Reaves allowed himself to live in for just a little bit longer.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.