Elliott: Austin Reaves turns LeBron James lectures into adulation with faith-validating shot

DALLAS, TEXAS - DECEMBER 15: Austin Reaves #15 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts after shooting.
Lakers guard Austin Reaves, left center, celebrates with his teammates after making the winning shot against the Dallas Mavericks in overtime Wednesday. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

LeBron James was in Austin Reaves’ face more than once on Wednesday, and none of those occasions was a warm and fuzzy moment.

A less persistent player than Reaves, the undrafted rookie who initially was given a two-way contract but earned a roster spot with his promising play at both ends of the court during a mini-camp in Las Vegas, might have wilted when James emphatically and repeatedly corrected his defensive mistakes and spacing errors. Reaves had grown up admiring James, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo and Anthony Davis, among others, “so for me to just be teammates with them is special,” he said.

Instead of being intimidated, Reaves took the lectures from James as a sign of trust and respect. He justified that faith by taking a pass from a cutting Westbrook and hitting the three-point shot that gave the Lakers a 107-104 overtime victory over the Dallas Mavericks, touching off a happy celebration at center court at American Airlines Center. The jubilation carried over to the locker room, where he was given a celebratory dousing of water that mixed with the sweat of a long night’s work.

“He’s a sponge. He soaks up all the information that we give him,” Davis said. “He wants to learn. He wants to get better. He’s not afraid of the moment. It shows right there. He’s a hard worker, play hard, do the right things. Even when we get on him during the game he’s right there, accepting the criticism, accepting the help and applying it on the floor.”

Reaves’ story is an easy one to celebrate and his success on Wednesday easy to enjoy. He played 32 minutes and 15 seconds, hitting five of the six shots he attempted — all from three-point range — and grabbing seven rebounds, all on the defensive end. He put in an honest day’s work and wrote a happy ending to his unlikely story when he fended off Tim Hardaway Jr. — who likely fouled him — and hit from 25 feet out.

Lakers guard Austin Reaves scrambles for a loose ball against Dallas Mavericks small forward Tim Hardaway Jr.
Lakers guard Austin Reaves, right, scrambles for a loose ball against Dallas Mavericks small forward Tim Hardaway Jr. during the fourth quarter. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

“I didn’t care if I scored or Russ scored or Bron scored, I just wanted to win the game,” Reaves said. “That’s really all that matters, if we win or not. But it happened that the ball came to me with a couple seconds. I didn’t have an opportunity to really do anything else. I had to shoot it.”

His contributions were key to a team that won its third straight game and sixth in the past eight despite being short-handed on Wednesday, with Talen Horton-Tucker, Dwight Howard and Malik Monk in the NBA’s COVID protocols. The Lakers needed the lift that the kid from Newark, Ark., was able to provide, and they’ll continue to stay on him because they know he can take it and he can deliver.

“I told him after the game that was a hell of a shot but it really was about the whole game that he played,” coach Frank Vogel said. “He played great defense, he made extra passes, he competed, and obviously knocked down big shots when the ball was swung to him. Great way to see him get the W.”

Lakers guard Austin Reaves shoots the winning shot over Dallas Mavericks small forward Tim Hardaway Jr. in overtime.
Lakers guard Austin Reaves shoots the winning shot over Dallas Mavericks small forward Tim Hardaway Jr. in overtime. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

Reaves said he’s fine with James offering advice at any time, in any fashion.

“That’s what I expect him to do. He’s probably the greatest player ever, I mean, arguably. He’s an ultra competitor,” he told The Times. “If he sees something I’m doing wrong then I expect him to come. I mean, he could come yell at me, explain in a different way, it doesn’t matter. I’m just going to take the point out of it and try not to do the same thing the next time. I really enjoy it. You can tell he wants me to learn and do a better job.”

Reaves admitted he was in awe of his new teammates the first time he joined them to go over plays during that mini-camp in Las Vegas last summer. “I just remember walking out on the court and I mean, you have Bron, Russ, AD, Melo, all these guys that have been established in the league for a long, long time. Like I said, six Hall of Famers. Could probably argue more,” Reaves said.

“So yeah, there was a split second there when we were in Vegas that it was like that. Then I quickly realized it’s just basketball and that’s what we’re here to do and that’s what got me to this point.”

James, who scored 24 points in nearly 43 minutes, said the Lakers are “kind of living in the moment right now,” because of the daily uncertainty over which players might be available because of COVID rules. “We have a lot of injuries, a lot of mixed lineups, a lot of guys in protocols, false protocols, things of that nature,” he said, “so we are what we are as a team and we like where we’re at.”

He also said he was extremely proud of Reaves, and with good reason. The game had a happy ending for Reaves, but it might be just the beginning for the kid who distinguished himself alongside the players he once idolized.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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