LeBron James and Malik Monk power Lakers to fourth consecutive victory
LOS ANGELES — “Strictly buckets,” Malik Monk interrupted, answering the question before it could even be fully asked.
See, Monk’s left arm is heavily tattooed, the ink on the front and back of his skinny limb. But his right? It’s blank, the 23-year-old guard following Nick Young’s advice to keep that shooting arm untarnished.
Against the Hawks on Friday, Monk was strictly a bucket, splashing home jumper after jumper as he scowled and flexed like he was the biggest player on the court.
Monk scored 21 points in the first half before LeBron James put them away, leading the Lakers to a 134-118 win against the Hawks.
James followed up Monk’s monster first half with 23 in the second to give him 32. It’s the ninth time in the last 10 games James’ scored at least 30.
The vibes inside the building were as good as they’ve been all season, the Lakers well on their way to their fourth win in a row, with highlight plays forced by the Lakers’ swarming defense pushing the crowd into a frenzy.
The building bounced as the Laker Girls danced to Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” moments after LeBron James floated to catch a lob from Talen Horton-Tucker on a fastbreak triggered by a perfect Russell Westbrook bounce pass.
Horton-Tucker finished with 21 points and Westbrook had 13 assists and 11 rebounds before fouling out.
Fittingly, Monk punctuated his best game of the season with a two-handed putback slam. He finished with 29.
The win moved them two games ahead of .500 for the first time since Dec. 15. It’s also the team’s first four-game winning streak of the season.
The Lakers probably couldn’t even think about .500 basketball without Avery Bradley, who the team signed this preseason after he was the Golden State Warriors’ final cut.
His willingness to play pressure defense with sincere effort and consistency were even more obvious considering so many of the team’s best defenders found themselves either traded or left to sign elsewhere during the postseason.
Guaranteeing the rest of his one-year contract, which the Lakers did Friday, was one of the easiest decisions the team has made this year.
“Obviously you start your season out a certain way and you find ways to enhance it throughout the course of the year,” Vogel said pregame. “We were able to pick up Avery I think right before the beginning of the season without much of a training camp, and he hit the ground running with us, obviously having a little bit of a background in our system, being here a few years ago, played extremely well for us, deserved a starting role.”
While Vogel can say, like he did pregame, that the Lakers would’ve found another player to try and harass the opponent’s best scoring guard, only Bradley has shown the ability to actually go out and do it. And even if some of the advanced metrics have been unkind to him at times this season.
“Tenacity is contagious. Intensity and playing hard is contagious,” Vogel said before he had Bradley shadow Trae Young. “And knowing that you’re OK on certain matchups against elite offensive guards coming in here, it’s almost necessary. You wouldn’t say it’s a great luxury, but it’s really, to win in this league, it’s necessary to have somebody that can hold his own and then some against the elite guards.”
The team also guaranteed rookie Austin Reaves’ contract for the remainder of the season. The Lakers also got Stanley Johnson back in their starting lineup after re-singing him via a 10-day contract to fill the vacant roster spot created by their Rajon Rondo trade.
Johnson’s return to the Lakers’ starting unit signaled further commitment to playing small despite Atlanta’s athletic frontcourt of John Collins and Clint Capela.
The Lakers countered with quickness, forcing turnovers and getting out into transition. James, left to patrol the paint with Anthony Davis still nursing a knee injury, repeatedly slapped the ball away from the Hawks’ bigs.
With his fourth steal of the game, James moved into the NBA’s all-time top 10 in that category.