'Learning on the fly': How Austin Reaves shook slump in Lakers' Game 4 win
With his backpack draped over his shoulder and a bag of food in his right hand, Austin Reaves eased his way to the Lakers’ bus after a crushing loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game 2 of the Western Conference playoffs last Thursday night at Chase Center, his thoughts on how his poor play in that game had hurt his team's cause.
Reaves heard a voice call his name and then motioned him over. It was Hall of Fame point guard Gary Payton, who looked the second-year guard in the eyes and offered some words of encouragement.
“Come here, Reaves. I like you,” Payton said. “You got some dawg in you. I like that. I like that you got that dawg.”
Reaves smiled and said, “Thank you.”
Fast forward to Game 4 at Crypto.com Arena on Monday night and Reaves displayed more of that dawg to break out of his shooting funk, finishing with 21 points on seven-for-15 shooting, three for six on three-pointers.
When reminded of that Game 2 moment, Reaves was able to laugh, after the Lakers had taken a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with a 104-101 win over the Warriors in Game 4.
“Honestly, I didn’t care like I should have because I was pissed off about the game. But, after the fact, I got on the bus and I was like, ‘Hold on!’” Reaves said when thinking about his conversation with Payton. “I was like, ‘That just happened.’ He’s the dawg of all dawgs. He’s a very, very, very, very established basketball player and defender and for him to acknowledge what I do is special. Anytime you get that kind of validation from a Hall of Famer or guy that’s been in the league for a long time it means a lot.”
Reaves showed some of that dawg in him in the third quarter of Game 4, when the Lakers were trying to go toe-to-toe offensively with the Warriors.
He had 10 points in the third, making three of five shots, including two of three three-pointers, while playing all 12 minutes.
He had an important three-pointer to chop the Warriors’ 12-point lead down to nine.
“It’s his first time, his first time through [the playoffs] and he’s doing a great job battling through the ups and downs, trying to stay aggressive, stay focused, stay locked in, not getting down on himself,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “Austin, I expect him to be fearless as always and he was. There was some not-so-good moments, but him being a trooper. … I pulled him over and I told him, ‘Stay aggressive. Stay aggressive.’ And I said, ‘A couple of those shots you are catching, a couple of those passes, you got to be ready to shoot.’ And, the very next play, I swear, the ball came to him and [he] just threw it up there like it was nothing, second nature, and it went right through the rim.
"So, he just has to stay fearless, stay aggressive and stay locked in like he always has been. He’ll make it through the rough patches of the game.”
In the first three games against the Warriors, Reaves had been off, his offensive play not efficient, his shots not falling.
He was tormented by shooting 32.1% (nine of 28) from the field and 28.5% (four of 14) from three-point range while having scored just 27 total points in the series.
Reaves refused to wallow in self-pity. His teammates wouldn’t allow that. His coach wouldn’t allow that.
“This whole series, every time I’d come out of the game — I hadn’t played well — I was frustrated with myself,” Reaves said. “I remember one time I came out of the game and it was Troy [Brown], Bron [LeBron James] telling me to forget about it. I’m in this position for a reason, obviously reasons. I’ve shown what I can do and everybody believes in me. So, to get that kind of validation as you’re even going through a little bit of a struggle gives you the confidence to keep being yourself.”
Reaves sat at his locker with ice bags on both knees and towels wrapped around his body. He had just finished chasing around Warriors guards Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole during his 34 minutes and 8 seconds of playing time.
Reaves had been knocked to the court a few times, but he got up, as he always does.
Reaves was asked to honestly answer: How was he feeling physically?
"I’m an honest man,” Reaves said, laughing. “I feel good today. I feel a little better than I have in the first three games. But, hey, this is part of it. You go through the first series six games chasing [Memphis’ Desmond] Bane around, Ja [Morant]. This is game, what 92? [93, actually.] And this is my first time. This is three college seasons in one.
"So, I’m learning on the fly. I got good vets to learn from. They wouldn’t let me shoot yesterday after practice. They told me to go home and lay down, get off my feet. So, I’m learning on the fly like I said, but this is a lot of fun.”
The Lakers have control of the series, but Reaves knows the job is not done and the Warriors will be ready for Game 5 on Wednesday night in San Francisco.
After all, the Warriors are the defending NBA champions and they still have the dangerous Curry and Thompson.
“This series is far from over,” Reaves said. “We got to go and put a whole game together and win again."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.