All Ball Sports: Hillbilly Kobe Leads Lakers into Western Finals
by Paul Teetor
Anthony Davis blocked Dante DiVincenzo’s layup attempt late in the first half of Friday night’s game against the Golden State Warriors, grabbed the loose ball out of the air and threw it down the court to a streaking Austin Reaves with three seconds left in the first half.
Reaves caught the ball in full stride, dribbled twice, and just past the half-court line air-mailed a high-arcing 50-foot shot that looked good from the moment it left his hand.
The ball headed straight for the hoop like a laser-guided Scud missile, fell through cleanly just as time expired, and ignited an already amped-up Lakers home crowd into all-out pandemonium.
Reaves kept going straight to the Lakers locker room screaming profanities at the Warriors, at the crowd, at his teammates and even at himself.
You could say he was a little bit excited.
And he had every reason to be.
A small town kid from rural Arkansas who showed no signs of being a future NBA player as recently as two years ago, he is now officially part of the bright lights, big city Lakers scene that includes Jack Nicholson, and a dozen other Hollywood celebs who stood and cheered him to the heavens.
The amazing shot grew the Lakers lead from seven back to 10 points after the Warriors had cut an early 17-point Lakers lead down to 7. But more importantly, it was a psychological accelerant that ensured the Lakers would come out for the second half confident that they could and would win this pivotal game six of their semi-final series and advance to the Western Conference Finals starting Tuesday night against the Denver Nuggets.
That a Lakers team which had started the season with only two wins in its first 12 games was heading to the conference Finals after the 125-101 Friday night rout over the Warriors was, to say the least, improbable and totally unpredictable.
But the idea that an undrafted 6-foot-5 white kid with a dad bod, no exceptional leaping ability, and no obvious big-time basketball attributes except boundless self-confidence, would deliver the shot that ensured their 4-2 series victory over the NBA’s defending champions was just as improbable.
Even more unlikely was that by the end of the Lakers semifinal win over the Warriors the home crowd was chanting “MVP, MVP” every time Reaves stepped to the foul line to shoot free throws.
In that moment of triumph one thing was crystal clear: Reaves is now the Lakers third best player behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis. A team that has been searching for a third star ever since they acquired Davis in the summer of 2019 had finally found one — and a most unlikely one for that matter.
After all, Reaves went undrafted in the 2021 NBA draft after two decent years at Wichita State, and then two pretty good years at Oklahoma. But the NBA scouts who came through Norman, Oklahoma doing their due diligence on four-year seniors – guys who stayed in college because they weren’t considered good enough NBA prospects to enter the draft pool – still didn’t see anything in Reaves that was worth taking a chance on, even in the second round. Second round picks are guaranteed nothing except the chance to attend training camp. Most second-round picks do not stick in the NBA.
But the plight of undrafted players is even more daunting: some lucky few get invited to play on a team’s summer league team, as Reaves did with the Lakers. But very, very few of those players go on to even make a team’s roster, and most of those who do, don’t last long.
Usually they shuttle between the G-League – which pays peanuts – and the NBA until they stick with the big team or face the reality that they’re not quite good enough to be an NBA player and leave to play in Europe or Asia and make some decent money while they’re still young and adventuresome.
Reaves’ journey to his Friday night coming-out party was different. Like a bunch of other free agents and undrafted rookies, he came to the Lakers summer league training camp in El Segundo not expected to do anything special. Indeed, the star of that summer league team was Mac McClung, a 6-foot-3 guard with mad hops who won the All-Star game dunk contest this year as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers.
But McClung didn’t make the Lakers roster that summer, while Reaves showed enough promise and potential to merit a two-way contract, which allowed the Lakers to shuttle him between the big club and the G-League South Bay Lakers, as long as he didn’t play more than 41 games with the real Lakers.
Coming off the bench, he was so good – he first attracted notice early in the season when he hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat the Dallas Mavericks – that the Lakers soon signed him to a two-year NBA contract for the league minimum of $953,000 per year.
That two-year contract expires after the playoffs end, and owner Jeannie Buss will have a real dilemma on her hands in trying to re-sign Reaves.
For Reaves, the timing is perfect: as an undrafted free agent, he will soon be an unrestricted free agent, free to sign with any team in the world. And what NBA team wouldn’t want him? In a league dominated by black stars, there are very few white players who can be considered box office draws.
Among the few are Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks. Reaves is on track to be the third member of that exclusive club.
But under the NBA’s convoluted and highly regulated salary structure, the most the Lakers can offer him is a four-year deal worth $51 million. Other teams, however, are free to offer him up to twice as much money for the same number of years. And even though Reaves’ family members were sitting with Buss at Friday night’s game, that doesn’t necessarily mean he will gladly give up $50 million just to stay in LA.
There is a way out of this dilemma for both sides, however. If Reaves signs with another team, the Lakers will have the right to match that contract and retain his services. So it will be an interesting summer for both sides when free agency starts July 1.
Just be sure of one thing: if the Lakers let Reaves walk, there will be an outpouring of fan anger.
While it was slowly dawning on Lakers management last season that they had stumbled into a special player – a guy who just has that knack of making winning plays, a guy with the IT factor that is so hard to quantify – Lakers fans on the internet were coming to the same realization.
Twitter went to work slamming the Lakers for missing the playoffs last season, but by the end of the season a fitting nickname for Reaves had emerged: Hillbilly Kobe.
It stuck as this season started, an homage to the late, great Laker legend as much as an acknowledgement that Reaves is a special player with a great future.
And that was never clearer than Friday night, when he piled up 23 points, 8 rebounds and six assists, outscoring even Davis, who had 17 points to go with an impressive 20 rebounds.
But by this point in the playoffs no one was really surprised: over the course of their six-game first round victory over the Memphis Grizzlies and then the six-game win over the Warriors, Reaves has averaged 16 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. And despite a lingering leg injury, he had been assigned to guard Memphis’ best shooter – Desmond Bane – and Golden State’s second-best shooter, Klay Thompson.
Bane was held well below his 19-point average and Thompson was locked up so badly that in the sixth and final game he shot a horrid 3 for 19 and was blamed as one of the primary reasons the Golden State dynasty had collapsed so completely.
While Reaves was the revelation of this game and indeed of this season, it was LeBron who carried the Lakers to this stirring game-six victory and into the Western Conference Finals.
In what might have been his greatest game as a Laker, he absolutely dominated the Warriors physically, repeatedly bulling his way to the basket, spinning around defenders and scoring a team-high 30 points with nine rebounds and nine assists.
This was the LeBron of old – meaning the LeBron who carried his teams in Cleveland, Miami and Cleveland again – to 8 straight NBA Finals appearances and 3 NBA championships.
His signature play – grabbing a defensive rebound, sprinting up the court and barreling his way to the basket for a layup or an easy shot for a teammate – produced basket after basket.
He was so good that for the first time ever a play-in team – meaning a team that finished 7-10 and had to win the play-in tournament just to get into the real playoffs – had made it to a conference finals. From that perspective, this Lakers season is already a resounding triumph.
But there’s something even more intriguing right around the corner: In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics will play the Miami Heat, starting Wednesday night.
The Heat also got into the real playoffs through the play-in tournament, so for the first time ever both play-in teams made it to the conference finals.
And since the Celtics are heavily favored to beat the Heat, Lakers fans are looking at the breath-taking possibility that these two ancient rivals – Lakers and Celtics – will meet in the NBA Finals for the 13th time. The Celtics have won the matchup nine times, but the Lakers won the most recent in 2010.
Prediction: Two weeks ago, All Ball predicted the Lakers would beat the defending champion Warriors, despite the Warriors being heavy favorites in the Vegas betting line. This time we are predicting that the Lakers will beat the Nuggets in seven games, despite the Nuggets being heavy favorites. LeBron’s quest to make history in his 20th NBA campaign, Davis’s quest to regain the respect of Lakers fans and the rest of the league after being derided as a brittle baller, and Hillbilly Kobe’s quest to honor his nickname will combine to produce one of the greatest wins in Lakers history.
And then: bring on the Celtics.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow: @paulteetor