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 has hovered near the top of the Western Conference for most of the season, the rally was led by the least 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 turn his career around (Malik Monk) and a third-year pro mired in trade rumors (Talen Horton-Tucker). All four of those players posted plus-13 or better point differentials. They combined for 44 of the Lakers' 101 points, and in the 15 minutes that foursome spent on the court together with James, they outscored the Jazz by 18 points. Perhaps not coincidentally, they were the four youngest players to take the floor 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. "I feel like I finally got a deflection and I finally got a loose ball and finally got some movement and assists and stuff like that. Once the energy gets into the game you're kind of just like, 'I'm playing with LeBron and Russ, it's easy to play with them.' So it's like, I just want to bring some energy. If I bring some energy, everything's gonna be fine."
That energy was felt on the glass, where offensive rebounds by Reaves and Johnson in the fourth quarter kept the Lakers ahead and helped them close the game, but Johnson's skill was just as important. Johnson went at three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert in the pick-and-roll four times in a three-minute span in the fourth quarter Monday, and on all four occasions, he scored. Those points were the backbone of a 17-4 fourth-quarter run that swung the game.
"I think if you watch basketball the last couple years, some teams have had success attacking him with smaller guys off the bounce," Johnson explained. James, one of the most prolific pick-and-roll ball-handlers in NBA history, largely served as his screener through that critical sequence. Those play calls were James' idea. "LeBron is a smart player," Johnson joked.
He certainly is, and historically, he's been a fairly hands-on one as well.
"I know the types of players I like to play with," James said after the win, and on Monday, all four reserves made compelling cases for greater roles. All four are playing with enormous stakes.
Johnson is on only a 10-day contract and needs to keep contributing if he plans to be re-signed for the rest of the season. Horton-Tucker and Monk are both fighting for minutes in a backcourt that's only going to get more crowded when Kendrick Nunn returns. Horton-Tucker, as the fourth-highest-paid player on the team, is a strong candidate to be traded if he gets squeezed out. If Monk does, he'll lose meaningful value as a free agent this offseason. Reaves is still just 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 youngest and least experienced Lakers that are living up to it.