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Rui Hachimura gives Lakers what they need in win over Grizzlies

On the short walk from the interview room at FedExForum to the visiting locker room, Rui Hachimura reviewed his mental catalog of career highlights.

Nothing he found could top what he did in the Lakers’ playoffs opener Sunday. Considering the team for which he was playing and what was at stake, he now counted his performance in the 128-112 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of their first-round series as the greatest of his career.

“I really like the big stage,” Hachimura said in Japanese. “In a place like this, I feel I can thrive. I like that I can give even more.”

The night before he scored a team-high 29 points to tie Mychal Thompson’s 35-year-old record for points in a playoff game by a Lakers reserve, he couldn’t sleep.

He wasn’t nervous.

“I was excited,” he said.

Who knew? The player from the Japanese countryside with a reputation for vanishing in games actually wants the ball in his hands in critical moments.

This is the paradox of Hachimura, a 6-foot-8 forward who sometimes plays small, an athletic marvel who sometimes looks as if he’s a step behind, a player with a wide range of skills who sometimes fails to exhibit any of them.

General manager Rob Pelinka acquired the former No. 9 overall pick before the trade deadline with hopes the Lakers could unleash what the Washington Wizards couldn’t.

Hachimura rewarded them Sunday by sinking 11 of 14 shots, including five of six three-pointers. He also pulled down six rebounds in his 29-plus minutes on the court.

The breakout performance felt as if it came out of nowhere, but that wasn’t the case. Guided by the words of LeBron James and inspired by a benching last month, Hachimura had transformed into a reliable contributor in recent weeks, enough to where coach Darvin Ham used him to close out the play-in game against the Minnesota Timberwolves and again against the Grizzlies on Sunday.

The 25-year-old Hachimura will be a restricted free agent in the summer but said he would like to return to the Lakers next season.

“Of course,” he said. “But that’s up to the team, and we still have the playoffs.”

From the time he enrolled at Gonzaga, Hachimura was told to be more aggressive. He received similar advice in Washington and with the Lakers.

“You could see when he first arrived, he was trying to sort of tiptoe around LeBron and [Anthony Davis],” Ham said.

Encouragement to be less deferential came from James and Davis.

“I see the type of player he is, what he can become, and I just try to stay in his ear, give him positive motivation, positive messages, let him know how important he is to our team and in order for us to reach the goal that we want to reach, he has to be a huge part of that,” James said. “And he wants to be.”

Hachimura said the way James and Davis talk to him have changed how he views himself.

“They tell me, ‘Take more shots,’ ” Hachimura said.

When James tells you to shoot more, Hachimura said with a hearty laugh, “You have to shoot.”

Before Game 1 against the Grizzlies, Hachimura said he was given the “green light” by James and Davis.

In a third quarter during which the Lakers gained control of the game, Hachimura scored 12 of the team’s 37 points, making all three of his threes.

“He listens,” Ham said. “He watches film. We highlighted certain things in film sessions with him. He’s seeing the fruit of that labor. I told him, just go out there and be free, be aggressive. The only mistake you could make on this team is to just not compete and not play together with your teammates.”

Lakers forward Rui Hachimura finished with 29 points Sunday, making five of his six three-point shots.

(Brandon Dill / Associated Press)

Hachimura’s competitive edge was sharpened by an incident three weeks earlier. In a home game against the Chicago Bulls, a healthy Hachimura was on the bench for the entire game.

“That DNP was on me,” Ham said.

Ham later explained to him that he was excluded from the rotation because James returned from injury that day. With James deciding to play just hours before the game, Ham didn’t have enough time to rework his plans to include Hachimura.

Still, Hachimura was upset.

“I’ve never had that happen to me,” Hachimura said. “I thought I had to do that more.”

Hachimura closed the regular season with a solid five-game stretch in which he averaged close to 13 points and 23 minutes.

Some of his motivation was more light-hearted.

The day before Game 1, Davis and Austin Reaves teased Hachimura about the quality of his dunks.

“He has this clip saved on his phone of him dunking on me when he was in Washington,” Davis said. “He shows Austin all the time. Actually, it was an offensive foul. He elbowed me in the face.”

Davis chuckled.

“But we gave him a hard time about it, like, ‘Your dunk package is not elite, you just do regular dunks,’ ” Davis said.

Hachimura said he told them, “Look, this series, I’m going to have one.”

In the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, he did, driving into the lane and dunking on projected NBA defensive player of the year Jaren Jackson Jr.

“He had a great one,” Davis said.

In that moment, in that game, Hachimura was the player the Lakers envisioned he could be.

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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