Midway through the third quarter of the a 103-101 win in the opening seeding game, the Los Angeles Lakers found themselves trailing the L.A. Clippers despite controlling much of the action up to that point.
In response to the Clippers going on a run, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel subbed out Danny Green and JaVale McGee. The smaller lineup comprised of LeBron James, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Anthony Davis.
James would eventually sit as well after a couple bad turnovers to start the half. The small-ball lineup, led by the defensive intensity of Kuzma and Caruso, brought the Lakers all the way back to tie the game, and they trailed by just one point at the end of the third quarter.
In about seven minutes, this unit outscored the Clippers 21-11. While Davis was incredible as always, it was Kuzma and Caruso who helped the Lakers out of their funk and led them to a win.
“Alex and Kuz have been playing exceptional basketball since the beginning of the restart,” Vogel said. “We were struggling with the starting unit at that point. Didn’t put a dent in their run, so subbed those two guys in to bring us some energy.
“They helped turn the game around, but really A.D., down the stretch of the third quarter really carried us. We were able to get right back in the game despite that early run by the Clippers.”
Vogel was especially complementary of Kuzma, saying it may have been his best of the year. “He was exceptional tonight. He’s had some other strong performances this year, so I don’t know if it was the best. It’s right up there with one of those,” Vogel said.
“In particular, when when was switched on to Kawhi he had some really good possessions and helped us get stops. He works really hard on that end. Certain matchups are more favorable for him, but he was terrific tonight. Like you said, when we put A.D. at the 5, if he can perform like that on the defensive end, we’re going to win a lot of games.”
James, who struggled offensively for a large chunk of the night, loved what he saw from this group. “We have the ability to play different games, different matchups and have different rotations,” James said.
“I thought Kuz and A.C. were excellent off the bench. They made a run, which we know all great teams are going to make a run. We just tried to combat that by making our own run. A.D. caught fire and we just started defending a little bit more.”
If Kuzma and Caruso can play this way — and hit a few extra shots — for the remainder of the NBA restart, it’s going to make the Lakers very hard to beat.
The same logic applies for lineups with Davis at the center position. The Lakers only tend to go to that when it’s absolutely necessary, and it’s almost always led to success for the team.
Kuzma mentally and physically prepared for restart
Part of Kuzma’s early-season struggles came from injury, and the fact that he never had time to get acclimated with the team due to the recovery process. The NBA hiatus provided him with an opportunity to not only get back to 100% physically but also on the mental front as well.
“I feel unbelievable health-wise. I feel great. Throughout the season had some injuries, played through injuries, but the break allowed me to physically get 100%. Mentally, I’ve been reading, meditating and painting a lot,” Kuzma said before entering the bubble.
“Just preparing my mind for the playoffs. I feel great. Not many players have an opportunity to win rings, and I have a chance to do that in my third year and really make moves with my career going forward.”
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