For four glorious games, Frank Vogel's job was easy. The Lakers swept through Boston, Atlanta, Denver and Detroit with the same nine players. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dennis Schroder and Marc Gasol started. Alex Caruso, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and Talen Horton-Tucker came off the bench. Their minutes were mostly stable. The team was winning. Pesky questions about minutes had, for the time being, been answered. Vogel had settled on a nine-man rotation.
That rotation was upended on Monday against the Thunder when Davis and Caruso, perhaps the two most important non-LeBron Lakers, were forced out due to injury. Such absences would have resulted in losses for most teams, but the Lakers have a different problem. Markieff Morris filled in for Davis in the starting lineup and held his own. Wesley Matthews filled in for Caruso and saved the game.
In 26 minutes off the bench, Matthews scored 16 points on 4-of-5 shooting from behind the arc. His defense and energy was sensational all night, and he made several of the plays that ultimately swung the game. With the Lakers trailing 107-102 with less than two minutes to go, Matthews keyed a 7-0 run that got the game to overtime. It started, predictably, with a 3-pointer off a LeBron pass:
With the score down to 107-105, Oklahoma City had a chance to put the game away on offense. Matthews had other plans. His defense on Darius Bazley forced the turnover that allowed the Lakers to tie the game:
With less than a minute remaining, Dennis Schroder gave the Lakers a two-point lead on this mid-range jumper. Who assisted it? You guessed it ... Matthews:
This is roughly the sort of performance the Lakers should expect out of Matthews. He's made over $100 million for his career and started for the Milwaukee Bucks last season. Were there a meaningful decline in his performance, the string of DNP-CDs might make sense. But Matthews is shooting 40 percent on 3s this season and defending at an above-average level. He went from starting on the team with the best record in the NBA last season to struggling just to see the court all because he signed with the defending champions. That's what happens when a team with two MVP candidates can unearth a young stud at No. 46 overall and convince the Sixth Man of the Year to sign on a discount.
It's the NBA's ultimate first-world problem. The Lakers have too many good players, and just when they think they've settled on the right mix, part of that surplus emerges from bench purgatory to remind them why he deserves playing time. To call it a problem at all is a testament to this team's lofty ambitions. In the regular season, being able to dust off a key reserve from your own championship team or a starter off a 60-win outfit in the opposite conference after a week on the shelf is an absolute godsend. It's why the Lakers won on Monday.
But Mondays in February are small potatoes for a team that expects to play into July, and when the competition is a bit stiffer than Oklahoma City can offer, the Lakers will probably want to know who their best nine players are. That is the number they settled on in the final rounds of the 2020 postseason, and it's approximately where most champions land. Dividing minutes any further limits the impact of each individual member of the rotation. Constant subbing makes it hard for them, and the lineups they inhabit, to find any sort of rhythm. When the stakes are highest, teams want only their best deciding their fates.
And what has become apparent through 25 games is that the Lakers don't know who that is yet. That's acceptable at game No. 25, but might not be at game No. 85 or 95. Vogel thought he had his answer entering the Thunder game. Matthews had other ideas. The Lakers still have 47 regular-season games to tinker, and Rob Pelinka has seven weeks to consider consolidation ahead of the postseason. But when the Lakers get there, they're going to need an answer, because leaving performances like the one Matthews provided Monday on the bench is a great recipe for losing on the biggest stage.