Hours away from the start of the Los Angeles Lakers’ second-round series against the Houston Rockets, it’s not long before so many questions will be answered. Will the Lakers try to play big or small?
Will the Rockets double-team Anthony Davis in the post or play him straight up? How often does James Harden find lost items in his beard?
In breaking down the series and what strategies each team is likely to use, there is one X-factor that continues to stand out. The player who could ultimately swing the series for their team by doing all of the little things.
For the Rockets, Robert Covington is an easy choice due to his defensive responsibilities in the paint as well as his role as a floor stretcher from the “center” position.
For the Lakers, however, figuring out who will be their X-factor is a bit more complicated. The knee-jerk reaction is to say that it’s Davis. After all, the Rockets will play small, which means Davis will have a size advantage regardless of whether he’s playing power forward next to centers JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard or sliding over to the center spot himself.
He will have every opportunity to dominate, and if he can do it, the Lakers should have an excellent chance to win the series.
Unfortunately, naming Davis as the X-Factor would also be incorrect. He is a superstar, and he’s going to do superstar things. The heights that Davis does or doesn’t ascend to will absolutely make a big difference in the series, but he isn’t the player who is going to do the little things that add up to a lot for the team.
Last series, against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers’ X-Factor was Alex Caruso. His defense on Damian Lillard flew somewhat under the radar, but made a huge difference for the Lakers. Caruso will play a big role in the second round as well, but he’s not the X-factor.
It’s Kyle Kuzma.
Yes, “The Boy Who Lived,” the one player from the Lakers’ young core not sent out in the Davis trade last summer, is the player the Lakers need to step up in this series, and it doesn’t even matter all that much which style of play head coach Frank Vogel opts to go with.
If the Lakers play small, Kuzma slides in next to Davis at the power forward, where his effectiveness shooting the corner three (over 50% marksmanship in the regular season) will be critical. His ability to slash to the basket can also help generate quick points, particularly when the ball is in the hands of LeBron James.
Should the Lakers play with their big lineup, which includes Davis at power forward and McGee or Howard at center, Kuzma will still be needed as a wing player who can close out on shooters and contest when Los Angeles’ defense is forced to scramble.
The Rockets are fantastic at this; putting Harden or Russell Westbrook in isolation situations so they can break down their man off the dribble, get into the paint, and fire the ball out to open shooters when the defense collapses to stop the drive.
The Lakers’ ability to scramble out to the 3-point line and contest shots will be a major point of emphasis in this series, and Kuzma’s size combined with above-average quickness gives him the physical tools to be a difference-maker in this regard.
That is, if he’s able to read the play and respond correctly, which is admittedly a work in progress.
At the start of the season, Kuzma was the only Laker without a defined role on the team, and with good reason: his skillset is versatile but still developing. No one knew the best way to use him because his game can go in so many different directions.
Danny Green is a 3-and-D wing. Caruso is a ball-handler. Dion Waiters is a scorer. Kuzma could be all of those things; and that’s a credit to how wide-ranging his abilities are.
However, the downside is that, from the coaching perspective, his game is like the menu at the Cheesecake Factory, with so many different options to go with that it becomes a challenge to decide which one is going to be best.
As time passed and Kuzma worked his way back into shape after missing most of training camp due to injury, Vogel began to push more responsibility onto his young forward. Not only have we seen him handling the ball in pick-and-roll situations, but his ever-improving defense has led to Vogel occasionally using him as the primary defender to shut down the opponent’s best scorer.
He still gets burned at times (Luka Doncic gave Kuzma fits), but he has also had moments of brilliance defending the likes of Kawhi Leonard and even Harden. While Kuzma won’t be their primary defender, expect to see Kuzma asked to check both Harden and Westbrook at points during this series.
The Rockets, like several other teams, may still have it in their scouting report that Kuzma is the guy to target in pick-and-roll situations, so his success (or lack thereof) on that end of the floor will be important.
If Kuzma can play smart positional defense, make the right reads, and anticipate what the Rockets are going to do, then his defense is going to matter in this series. Similarly, if he can connect on his corner 3s while being a threat as a slasher and occasionally attack off the dribble, Kuzma can give the Lakers offense a little extra punch as well.
The Lakers are defined by James and Davis, their stars, and rightfully so. However, if we assume both of them will do what we expect, then it’s the play of Kuzma that has the potential to lift the entire team to the next level. He has been a roller coaster this season, with inconsistent play causing frustration.
That said, it seems like the bubble has brought out the best in Kuzma, despite a relatively quiet series against Portland. With the Rockets on deck, Kuzma’s skill set just may allow him to finally become that third guy, the difference-maker, the X-Factor that the Lakers need.
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