LOS ANGELES — LeBron James has a way of bringing attention to his orbit. But even though he scored 50 points Friday night, he wasn’t alone as the Lakers pulled away in the fourth quarter.
There was Malik Monk 3-pointers in quick succession. There was Talen Horton-Tucker, moving past Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and diving on Kyle Kuzma. There was Austin Reaves, attacking a fence and finishing a layup on Corey Kispert.
The Lakers’ young players were so strong that Russell Westbrook was benched for nearly the final nine minutes of the 122-109 win over Washington.
“These guys are talented guys,” coach Frank Vogel said. “They kept getting better and better and more comfortable in our system, in our environment. And I put them at 21 for 38. Malik, Austin and Talen. This trio is another reason why I believe we have a chance.
It seems telling that on a list that originally touted his experience, younger members of the Lakers have recently been the players Vogel relies on. Against the Wizards, Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard and Avery Bradley didn’t play a minute. The Lakers went with a starting roster of James, Westbrook, Reaves, Monk and Stanley Johnson for the fourth time this season (no Lakers roster has started more than five times so far).
When the team closed with that group and Horton-Tucker in place of Westbrook, Vogel said it wasn’t an indictment of Westbrook (who was 2 of 11 but had 9 assists to a figure of business) as much as it was an endorsement of this particular range.
“The game is about the five guys on the floor,” he said. “Those three guys (Monk, Reaves, Horton-Tucker) were playing at a really high level. Defensively, with the lead, we wanted Stanley in there. And it was just about having those guys there to win, that was no more than that.
There are several key factors in the ninth-place Lakers’ belief that they can do playoff damage. One is James, who now leads the NBA in scoring average (29.7 ppg). One is Anthony Davis, who may or may not recover in time to play in one or more potential games in April. One is Westbrook, whose haphazard performances continue to fuel Lakers hopes he could activate it at the right time, like he did in Washington last season.
But one underrated factor is the ongoing youth movement among the Lakers. While Vogel has gradually turned to younger players for stability, their edge could very well be the difference for the beleaguered franchise.
“I expect these guys to make plays because they’re on the court and I know what they’re capable of,” James said. “I know what Malik is capable of. Obviously I’ve been in the fox hole with THT and Austin has proven himself. So it was great to see these guys making plays on the stretch. Especially when the Wizards started double pick-and-rolls with my isos and those guys kept making plays. It was great to see that.
While the recent starting roster has only played 48 minutes together, according to NBA tracking data, this five-man squad has a net rating of 31.4. The defensive versatility of this formation convinced Vogel to ignore the better angels of his nature and stay small for more minutes, freeing up James in attack.
As the Lakers play more minutes with the young roster, it could depend on how much those players can handle. As James lit up wizards from all over the pitch, these actors found ways to grab hold of his standard.
“I think they definitely captured the energy of Bron, because Bron keeps our belief strong, you know what I mean, and keeps us connected,” Vogel said. “These guys are talented guys. They continued to improve and become better and more comfortable in our system, in our environment.
It’s unclear how well the Lakers veterans will play on the stretch: Howard, Ariza, Bradley and Wayne Ellington may have roles as the Lakers try to wrap up strong.
Although a relatively inexperienced group, Horton-Tucker said the team understands how they have to change to win in close games.
“When Bron goes like that, we have to kind of reward him,” he said. “So everyone had to do their job and tonight pretty much everyone did, got down to doing the things that they need us to do whenever someone behaves like that .”