First, it was, “2-10; 13th seed; 0.2% chance of making the playoffs.” Then, “Play-in team; First-round exit; Enjoy Cancun!”
The Los Angeles Lakers have defied the odds so far, and they did it again in a six-game victory, upsetting the all-bark, no-bite, second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Now, for this team that was battle-tested for 82 games and throughout the early postseason, a new challenge awaits; the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
It goes without saying that their two best players, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, will be critical in the upcoming matchup. James put up 22.2 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game to start the 16th playoff appearance of his career. Davis proved his dominance against this year’s Defensive Player of the Year, tallying 26 blocks in six games and averaging 20.8 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 4.3 swats a game. However, it’s equally important to examine the unsung heroes of the squad: the role players who are going to need to step up to give the Lakers a fighting chance at extending their run.
Lakers vs. Warriors: Key Role Players for the Purple and Gold
1. D’Angelo Russell
This series is going to mean more for D’Angelo Russell, who donned the Warrior gold during the latter half of the 2019-20 season and stepped up for an injury-ridden roster. Now, fresh off of a 31-point masterclass to close out the first round for the Lakers, DLo and his icy veins will play a major factor in this duel with his former team.
Russell averaged 16.8 points, 5.7 assists, and 3.7 rebounds in the first round of this year’s playoffs. He shot 43% from the field, 37% from deep, and 77% from the free-throw line, stats that improved greatly after a slow start to the series. Russell has meshed perfectly with James and Davis throughout their short time together. The trio has tallied an offensive rating of 113.3 and a defensive rating of 101. And DLo appears to be getting his groove back at the right time, as game six was his first time shooting over 50% from the field in the postseason. His momentum against a red-hot Warriors squad will be incredibly valuable, as he has become arguably the team’s third-best player. Though this next guy might have something to say about that.
2. Austin Reaves
From an undrafted player to becoming an immediate contributor in the postseason, second-year guard Austin Reaves has been electric. He made a statement in his playoff debut, erupting for 23 points on 8-13 shooting from the field, including three triples and clutch fourth-quarter baskets. Since then, he has taken a backseat to let greatness shine while still stuffing the stat sheet. His playoff averages of 16.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 5.8 assists are surprising at first glance, but an evaluation of the last few months explains all that viewers need to know.
In Dave McMenamin’s profile of Reaves’s rise, Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka spoke to how a focus of the trade deadline was getting the young guard more opportunities: “[It was] definitely a consideration around Austin and how do we free up more — both time for him and then ability to make plays with the ball in his hand. Because the analytics show, he’s highly effective.”
From the trade deadline to the regular season finale, Reaves delivered consistently. His sensational play carried over to the first round, and now he faces brighter lights once again.
Similar to Russell, Reaves will be another X-factor who is getting hot at the right time. While James, Davis, and Russell duke it out against Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, look for Reaves to either go to battle against fellow young stud Jordan Poole or get switched onto Curry every once in a while. Unafraid of facing the opponent’s best player, Reaves thrives under pressure, and he will have to keep it going against a gritty and proven Warriors team. Reaves has helped bring the Lakers to new heights. There’s no doubt he can do it again.
3. Jarred Vanderbilt
After beating the Warriors in the Bay back in March, Jarred Vanderbilt said, “My job is to make everything uncomfortable.” His willingness to guard the other team’s best player while still staying ready on the offensive end will be vital for the Lakers’ success.
The 6’9” big has averaged 7.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game in his postseason run for LA. He notably notched 15 points, six rebounds, and three blocks in the Lakers’ game-four victory over the Grizzlies, and he has continued to make his presence felt on both ends of the floor. His play has even caught the attention of several NBA scouts, with one telling the Los Angeles Times’ Dan Woike, “The bigs have to be up and committed and also challenging shots. Vanderbilt can guard guards on the perimeter as good as any big in the league.”
Vando’s versatility has remained his calling card throughout the year, and it will be crucial in guarding a Warriors team that is constantly on the move. Whether he guards one of the bigs or gets switched onto a guard, Golden State should hope to contain the “The Vandolorian.”
The Last Word on the Lakers Role Players
There are other players not mentioned, such as Dennis Schröder, Troy Brown Jr., and Malik Beasley, who will all need to pull their own weight for the Lakers to make this series with Golden State a thriller. However, DLo, Reaves, and Vando will still be vital next to LeBron and AD. Look for their contributions in the heat of the playoffs to continue in the upcoming series. The stars may shine bright, but the supporting cast does the dirty work, being the difference between advancing and exiting.