Austin Reaves helps spark Lakers in move to starting lineup

ByDave McMenamin ESPN logo
Thursday, March 23, 2023

LOS ANGELES -- Lakers coach Darvin Ham sat down in front of reporters following his team's 122-111 win over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday and, before fielding any questions, couldn't help but smile at how his new-look starting lineup performed.

"You like the little trick up the sleeve?" Ham asked.

He was referring to his decision to put Austin Reaves, coming off a career-best 35 points, in the first unit over Malik Beasley.

Reaves responded with a career-best 11 assists against the Suns, to go with 25 points, and the Lakers beat the Western Conference's No. 4 seed to move back into the West's No. 10 spot, the final berth in the play-in tournament.

"For me, it's really the same mindset going into every game, and it's win -- at all costs," Reaves said of getting the starting job. "Win. That's all that really matters."

The Lakers are now a half-game up on the No. 11 Utah Jazz and just a game and a half behind the No. 6 Golden State Warriors with nine games remaining.

"Obviously, we don't want to be in this position," Reaves said. "We'd like to be first in the league. But this is the position that we're in. ... So, it's going to be hectic, but this is why you play the game. You want high-pressure moments, and you really want to play under the lights."

Reaves' inclusion in the starting group illuminated how potent L.A.'s offense can be with multiple playmakers sharing the floor. It wasn't just Reaves presenting a threat, but Anthony Davis (27 points and five assists) and D'Angelo Russell (26 points and six assists) pressuring Phoenix's defense, too.

"I'm not going to lie to you," Russell said of Reaves, "the dude is good, man."

The second-year wing got to the line 13 times, making 12, and L.A. attempted a season-high 46 free throws.

"I just felt like it made all sense in the world," Ham said of the lineup change, which he informed Reaves would happen at Tuesday's practice. "And salute to Beas, being a pro's pro, understanding the strategic part of it, and Beas was locked in and ready. Came off the bench and hit two big 3s for us and competed. That's what we need, man."

Both of Beasley's 3s came in the second quarter when L.A. outscored the Suns 36-26 to take a seven-point lead into halftime.

The third quarter belonged to Davis, who scored 14 points in the period.

"His dumbass coach just started calling his plays more, calling his number more," Ham said of Davis' second-half surge.

The Lakers took a three-point edge into the fourth and the Suns cut it to 99-98 with 7:29 remaining, before L.A. used a 10-2 run over the next two minutes to take control for good.

But it started with Reaves.

"It was good for us, obviously, getting out to a fast start and not getting behind 10, 12 like we usually do," Davis said of the lineup change. "So Austin comes in and I think scores 10 in the first quarter to help us get going, and it was good for us."

L.A. (36-37) hosts the West's No. 8 team, the Oklahoma City Thunder (36-36), on Friday, in another game with major seeding implications. The season series is 1-1, so the tiebreaker is up for grabs, beyond the crucial game outcome.

"The guys know what's at stake. We have to take advantage of this homestand," Ham said. "It goes without being said, some of the games that slipped through our fingers [hurt us]. But that's old news now. ... Hopefully Friday we come out with the same type of juice and energy that we had tonight."