LOS ANGELES — As improbable a playoff run as this has been for the Lakers, somehow it makes perfect sense. A guy who was gone if not forgotten from the rotation for most of the last three months reintroduced himself at the most opportune moment, and might have stuck a dagger in the defending NBA champions.
Ladies and gentlemen, Lonnie Walker IV. He’d been a starter while the Lakers were struggling to get to .500 for the first two months of the season, hurt his knee right before New Year’s and missed 13 games, then found himself playing fewer minutes when he did come back because of the emergence of Austin Reaves and then the flurry of trades at the deadline that basically remade the roster.
And maybe this is a message that all aspiring players can latch onto. You can get shoved into the background, but if you keep working and stay positive, your time will come again.
Monday night was most definitively Walker’s time. He’d played 25 solid minutes in the Lakers’ blowout victory over Golden State in Game 3 on Saturday night after Coach Darvin Ham had given him a heads-up that he would be needed.
In the first three quarters in Monday’s Game 4, Walker had played 15 minutes and not taken a shot, though he’d had one rebound, two assists and a steal so he’d been contributing something. Then, in the fourth, all he did was save the game: 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting, starting with a 3-pointer at the very beginning of the period, including a jumper from the left wing with 1:53 left to give the Lakers a 100-99 lead, and ending with two free throws with 15 seconds left to secure a 104-101 victory and a 3-1 series lead.
“We don’t win without him,” LeBron James said.
And the roars of delight from the home crowd sealed it: Lonnie Walker IV is now an L.A. folk hero, at least for the hours between now and Wednesday night’s Game 5 tipoff in San Francisco.
“The greatest feeling you can ever, ever imagine,” Walker said. “You know, as a kid, this is something I’ve been dreaming of doing – not just being a part of the playoffs, but impacting it.”
It is hard for players who have lost playing time to stay positive. Even when they haven’t fallen out of favor, even when it’s just a numbers game, it’s natural to feel like the coaches don’t like you or someone in the front office is plotting against you or that your career is at a crossroads. The coach can tell you to keep your head up or give you words of encouragement, but sometimes it’s hard to believe.
“You know, he fell out of the rotation through no fault of his own,” Ham said. “But he remained a trooper, remained professional, remained high-spirited, positive, and really kept working on his game, attacking this game every day, really staying locked in on the information, especially during these playoffs.
“When your mind and your heart is in a good place, the body follows. I’ve seen a ton of kids, played with them, coached them, where you know there’s nothing but negative because their individual circumstances aren’t what they would hope them to be. And then when they do get opportunity unexpectedly, they fail miserably.”
Conversely, during those “stay ready” workouts and scrimmages involving the guys who aren’t playing, Walker’s enthusiasm and professionalism convinced Ham that he would be ready if given the opportunity.
“That karma, that good, productive, positive karma, it’s real,” Ham said. “Whatever you put out goes full circle. It’s either gonna come back and slap you in the face, or come back and hug you. The energy he put out, it came back and hugged him – and hugged us, because we needed all of that.”
Walker’s role diminished because of all of those midseason trades, and the arrival of D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley. But those trades also created this moment, because without that makeover these Lakers would not be close to this position, with three chances if needed to knock out the defending champs.
Interestingly, when Russell talked during Sunday’s off-day availability, he noted that he had the locker next to Walker and had an opportunity to observe Walker’s approach and attitude.
“For him to keep his spirits high and his energy high and to be as positive as he is, I think that allowed him to be ready for that opportunity,” Russell said. “To see him kind of go through what he’s been through and to come out on top with that positive image, I can’t do anything but give him flowers for that.”
A large part of the reason the Lakers have flourished during these playoffs, beyond Anthony Davis’ defensive dominance, is the fact that the role players have stepped up. Monday it was Walker’s turn. Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura have had their moments, as have Russell and Dennis Schröder.
After the victory, LeBron and A.D. pulled him aside. What were they talking about?
“Just being a true pro,” Walker said. “Weather the storm, learn how to dance in the storm. … It’s not going to be all flowers and lollipops and good and stuff. There’s going to be hard times. And that’s just God’s ultimate test to make you learn something in order to get to your goal.”
It’s easy to forget that Walker was the 18th player selected in the 2018 draft by the San Antonio Spurs. The former Miami Hurricane averaged 20.4 minutes and 9.4 points per game in four seasons with the Spurs, and the Lakers signed him to a one-year deal as a free agent to replace Malik Monk, who moved on to Sacramento.
He bolstered his case for another contract Monday night. And the spring is still young.
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LONNIE WALKER IV SHINES IN GAME 4!
— NBA (@NBA) May 9, 2023