In the locker room about 40 minutes after the Lakers beat the Atlanta Hawks, 109-94, on Sunday night to sweep their season series, Jordan Clarkson was explaining his postgame fashion choice, a mustard-colored kilt, as Larry Nance Jr. stood beside him, chuckling.
Lou Williams held court across the room, Tarik Black tried to goad Nance into divulging an inside joke as he strolled out, and Brandon Ingram was a few minutes from emerging for his postgame interview session.
Fittingly, the five Lakers saviors on this night, their superlative set of bench players, were the last ones left in the locker room, still enjoying each other’s company as much as they seemed to on the court.
“We give ourselves up for each other,” said Black, the center on the Lakers’ second unit. “We sacrifice for each other. You see it on the court. Open man gets the shot, we play defense for each other, you can see it on the team, we smile together, laugh together. We love each other in this locker room.”
The second unit was back together again Sunday at Staples Center after two games apart, and together they led a rally that helped the team improve to 9-9 while handing the Hawks (10-7) their fifth loss in six games.
The Lakers played without starting point guard D’Angelo Russell and starting power forward Julius Randle, while starting shooting guard Nick Young returned to the lineup. Needing to replace only two starters, instead of the three he had to replace in the previous game, Lakers Coach Luke Walton kept together the second unit he’s grown to trust so much. Thomas Robinson made his first start in Randle’s place, and third-string point guard Jose Calderon started again for Russell.
The Lakers have now used a different starting lineup in each of the last five games.
Nance, the backup power forward, notched a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Backup guards Williams and Clarkson were the two leading scorers — 21 points for Williams and 18 for Clarkson, who also added five assists.
“I think we just got five guys that’s learning how to play well together,” Williams said. “J.C. and I are the primary scorers, Black and Larry, they do all the dirty work. B.I. is our defender. I think we got a good mix of guys out there.”
The Lakers fell into an early hole, as former Lakers center Dwight Howard scored the Hawks’ first six points. Now a villain in Los Angeles, Howard heard loud jeers throughout the game, but in the first quarter they mattered little as he scored 13 points.
The Hawks led by as many as 13 before ending the quarter up by 11, 32-21.
Then everything changed.
“The energy that second unit brought on the defensive end in the second quarter, I think, changed the outcome of that game,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said. “It’s what we have been preaching all year, but it was really the first time we saw all five guys on the court talking defensively.”
The Lakers opened the second quarter with a 22-6 run. Howard never attempted a shot in the period as the Lakers took away the paint, where he’d had his way earlier in the game.
The Hawks were outscored 35-16 in the second quarter, and couldn’t recover. Their 94 points were the fewest the Lakers have allowed in a home game this season.
The Lakers fed off the energy of their reserves. There even came a time when Walton considered returning to some of his starters, but those players waved him off to let the second unit play. Ingram, Nance, Clarkson, Williams and Black each played more minutes than any Lakers starter.
“They have been one of the best groups of five, starters or benches, all season long in the NBA,” Walton said.
It’s a group that has bought into their abilities together, and the team has returned the favor.