April 14, 2024

Who was that masked man who stepped into the Lakers’ starting lineup Thursday and turned what might have been an uncomfortable situation into a forceful bounceback victory over Charlotte during a particularly difficult stretch of a still-difficult season?

With Cam Reddish unavailable against the Hornets because of a sore groin, coach Darvin Ham coyly said before the game he’d play “someone” in Reddish’s place. That “someone” turned out to be Rui Hachimura, who’s still required to wear a face covering after undergoing surgery for a nasal fracture he suffered in November.

The lineup change, born of necessity rather than choice, proved a good one. Hachimura combined with reserves Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, Max Christie and Christian Wood to close the third quarter with a 14-5 surge that helped extend what had been a one-point lead at halftime to 19 after three. The same five players also started the fourth quarter, putting enough space between the Lakers and the Hornets (7-22) to allow LeBron James and Anthony Davis to be spectators for the final 12 minutes of an eventual 133-112 romp.

“We knew they were going to be playing fast, with a lot of force. They’re athletic. They run fast and they jump high so that was the mind-set behind putting a bigger body out there with those other four,” Ham said of why he started Hachimura for the fourth time this season. “And maintaining our size and athleticism and our speed. And that’s what he provided tonight.”

Hachimura used his speed to rush out of the locker room at Crypto.com Arena on Thursday before reporters could speak to him. He finished with 17 points and four rebounds (all on the defensive end) and a game-best +34 plus/minus rating. The masked man, it seems, was the right man for the Lakers (17-15) on Thursday.

“He’s managed it well,” Ham said of Hachimura’s facial protection. “He was big for us tonight as well. And he’s staying aggressive. … But I’m pretty sure he can’t wait to be done with it.”

Reaves, who scored 16 points, pulled off one of the most dynamic moves of the night, a behind-the-back layup early in the fourth quarter that drew roars from the crowd and from the rest of the Lakers. “It’s exciting that we have players and that we get to sit on the bench and watch your teammate do something special and you become fans of the game, especially of the guys on the team. So, that was a cool moment for us,” Davis said.

The key is that Davis and James had the luxury of sitting on the bench and didn’t have to be on the floor to put away the Hornets. Davis had noticeable spring in his legs while scoring 26 points, pulling down eight rebounds, and blocking four shots. He was rejuvenated by having time off since the Lakers’ Christmas afternoon loss to Boston, a rare lull. The pace will pick up again soon enough.

“Anytime you’re able to bank some minutes going into, especially a tough back-to-back, Minnesota and New Orleans, it helps us as a team,” Davis said of the team’s games Saturday and Sunday.

Being able to give a break to Davis and James (17 points on seven-for-13 shooting plus 11 assists) was a victory within a victory in Reaves’ mind. It couldn’t have happened without the high-energy and effective unit that closed that third quarter with a rush.

“Anytime we can give Bron and AD a rest, they do so much for our team every night, is good,” Reaves said. “I thought we were playing good basketball. We were making the right plays. On defense we were competing. C-Wood, I don’t know how many rebounds he had. There were a lot of possessions where he was fighting in the post and getting his hand on rebounds.

“We just played good as a unit and gave those guys some time to relax.”

Wood was credited with five rebounds in just over 23 minutes. Russell scored 16 points with nine assists, as the Lakers shared the ball generously and earned 41 assists on 52 made field goals. Reaves (16 points) and Christie (10 points, seven rebounds and +18) played key roles on a night the Lakers, who had lost five of their previous six games, needed a boost and got it in a 63-36 edge in bench scoring.

Reddish’s absence Thursday meant they had to change their starting lineup only two games after they had reconfigured it to put Jarred Vanderbilt in and had moved Russell to the bench. They’re still chasing consistency in their lineups and in their defensive play, which Ham remains convinced will carry them upward.

But for one game, at least, they found ways to turn potential problems into opportunities, thanks to a masked man and his cohorts.

“Like I said the other night, every time that we step on the court, we can beat anybody we play,” Reaves said, “but just figuring out really what our identity is, in my opinion, [is] the main thing because we can be so good when we figure that out.”

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