It wasn’t LeBron James who saved the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday. It wasn’t even Russell Westbrook and his mop. No, in their biggest win of the season against a fully loaded Utah Jazz team that hovered near the top of the Western Conference for most of the season, the rally was led by the less accomplished Lakers. .
Frank Vogel used four reserves against the Jazz: an undrafted rookie (Austin Reaves), a 10-day signing (Stanley Johnson), a former lottery pick playing for the minimum in an effort to change his career (Malik Monk) and a third-year pro mired in trade rumors (Talen Horton-Tucker). These four players posted point differentials of plus-13 or better. They combined for 44 of the Lakers’ 101 points, and in the 15 minutes the foursome spent on the court with James, they outscored the Jazz by 18 points. It might not be a coincidence that they were the four youngest players to speak on Monday for Los Angeles, and as Johnson noted, that energy was the difference in the game.
“I just wanted to bring some energy to the game,” Johnson said. noted. “I feel like I finally got a deflection and finally got a loose ball and finally got some movement and assists and stuff like that. Once the energy comes into play, you’re kind of like, ‘I play with LeBron and Russ, it’s easy to play with them. So it’s like I just want to bring energy. If I bring energy, everything will be fine .”
That energy was felt on the glass, where Reaves and Johnson’s offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter kept the Lakers ahead and helped them wrap up the game, but Johnson’s skill was just as important. Johnson went to three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert in the pick-and-roll four times in three minutes in the fourth quarter Monday, and on each of the four occasions he scored. Those points were the backbone of a game-changing 17-4 fourth quarter streak.
“I think if you look at basketball the last two years, some teams have been able to attack it with smaller guys on the rebound,” Johnson said. Explain. James, one of the most prolific pick-and-roll ball handlers in NBA history, largely served as a filter through this critical streak. These play calls were James’ idea. “LeBron is a smart player,” Johnson said joked.
It certainly is, and historically it has also been quite active.
“I know the types of players I like to play with,” James noted after the win, and on Monday, the four reserves made a compelling case for bigger roles. All four play with huge stakes.
Johnson only has a 10-day contract and must continue to contribute if he plans to be re-signed for the remainder of the season. Horton-Tucker and Monk both battle for minutes in a backcourt that will only get more crowded when Kendrick Nunn returns. Horton-Tucker, as the team’s fourth-highest-paid player, is a strong trade candidate if he is ousted. If Monk does, he will lose significant value as a free agent this offseason. Reaves is still trying to prove he belongs in the NBA.
And in the team’s biggest game of the season, all four stepped up and helped lead the Lakers to a win. Being a Laker comes with significant pressure, and right now it’s the younger and less experienced Lakers who are carrying it out.