It didn’t matter. It was a close game throughout, with a flashback to send the game into overtime and several huge shots that looked like possible winners. The Lakers have finally gained the upper hand and are down to 39-30 this season. This extra victory will mean a lot in the standings, that’s where we’ll kick off the most important lessons from tonight’s battle.
1. Six is the number of the night
Laker’s victory kept their hopes of avoiding the play-in round. With three relatively easy games on their schedule, all they have to do is encourage the Portland Trail Blazers to fight down the home stretch. Right now, the Blazers lead the Lakers by one game in the standings, but thanks to the tiebreaker they would have to lose twice to drop to 7th. Fortunately for the Lakers, Portland finished against three contenders: the Jazz, Suns and Nuggets. If the Lakers swept away their three games against the Rockets, Pacers and Pelicans while Portland lost two or more, the Lakers would finish No.6 after all.
As the Lakers fight to reach No.6, the Knicks are fighting to avoid it. New York now finds itself in a three-way tie with Atlanta and Miami at 38-31, but this situation does little to favor them. Three-way ties are broken if either team is a division winner. Right now, the Hawks are in line to win the Southeast Division, forcing the Knicks to a head-to-head tie-breaker with the Heat they lose. They’ll need Miami or Atlanta to lose a few games later to squeeze out of reach of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Hawks will be favored in each of their three remaining games, but the Heat won’t. They face the Philadelphia 76ers tomorrow and the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday. If even one of those games is a loss, the Knicks are back in business.
Talen Horton-Tucker had only played eight minutes in clutch situations this season heading into Tuesday’s game. It makes sense intuitively. Even though the Lakers have remained determined to find him minutes, few teams are comfortable with a 20-year-old on the floor at the end of a close game. They are just too prone to error. Horton-Tucker was too. It makes sense that his reputation among non-Lakers fans is largely based on a dominant preseason performance. Young players tend not to have the opportunity to prove themselves in high leverage situations.
Well, Tuesday was a high-leverage situation, and while Horton-Tucker struggled for most of the game, he delivered when it mattered. In overtime in an important classification game against a top five defense without his best teammate, Horton-Tucker scored eight of the Lakers’ 10 points, including this beauty of a match winner.
Yes, Horton-Tucker made seven turnovers in this game. He is an excessive dribbler who at times displays a dangerous degree of tunnel vision. He’s a 26% 3-point shooter. These are all valid reviews. But flashes like these are very, very rare for a 20 year old. On Tuesday, he became the first Lakers reserve since the 1995-96 season to register several games of 10 points and 10 assists in a season. The last player to do this? Magic Johnson. He was pretty comfortable playing in the clutch for the Lakers at a young age. Horton-Tucker seems to be too.
3. Save room for Wes
The Horton-Tucker game winner will get the most attention, but the Lakers wouldn’t even have reached overtime without Wesley Matthews’ biggest setback of their season.
High IQ games like this are common for Matthews, but minutes this late are not. In fact, Matthews has struggled to stay in rotation for much of the season due to a combination of roster rotation and inconsistent play. In fact, when Anthony Davis returned home, Matthews was sidelined in five of his first six games entirely as the Lakers struggled to find enough minutes for everyone.
But with Ben McLemore installed as a Laker and several injured perimeter players, Frank Vogel has been leaning more and more into Matthews lately. He played 33 minutes in Sunday’s win over the Suns, the second biggest minute of his season, and the Lakers beat Phoenix by 13 with him on the ground. He played 24 minutes on Tuesday, and in a one-point game the Lakers won his minutes by 14 points.
Horton-Tucker has flashes of stardom, but those numbers are the reason Matthews is likely to play the biggest role in the playoffs. It is much more stable. His shot adapts more comfortably to Laker’s other ball handlers, he’s a more consistent defender, and as this recoil has shown, his basketball IQ is simply more developed. He’s always in the right place at the right time, and that helped put Horton-Tucker in a position to win this game in overtime.