For the vast majority of his first three games back, Kyle Kuzma looked pretty pedestrian. He couldn’t figure out when to attack and so was left to mostly floating and occasionally forcing shots that weren’t there because he felt like he had to. Such was the case for three-quarters of Tuesday night’s win against Chicago, but then the fourth quarter happened.
Kuzma started the quarter with a three, pulling the Lakers to within 10. Just over a minute later, he made a layup, bringing the deficit to eight. 45 seconds later, it was a nine-foot jumper to bring the Lakers to within six. He was fouled, but missed the free-throw, which Dwight Howard promptly dunked to bring the Lakers to within four. Kuzma would go on to hit two more shots in the quarter as the Lakers would dominate and wind up winning comfortably.
This was exactly the kind of outburst Lakers fans (and apparently the Lakers) had been waiting for. So, what went into it? James had a theory (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“I think he just slowed down in the second half. I think that’s the Kuz that we know. I think in the first half he was kinda rushing a little bit, had a couple turnovers and was just playing a little fast.
“And the one thing for him, you can’t try to get it all the way back in just a couple games. I think he was slowly continuing to get back, I mean he hasn’t played since USA Basketball… You’re really going to be off for a little bit and you just have to continue to go through it. Kuz is going to be a great piece for our team, and he showed tonight why, offensively and defensively.”
All of this makes perfect sense, but it also probably isn’t a coincidence that with James and Anthony Davis (who wasn’t playing well, mind you) on the bench, Kuzma felt more freedom to expand his game a little. He was utilized not as a floor spacer who has to score when he’s asked to.
No, he was featured in the offense as he came around screens and caught the ball on the move against a rotating defense.
Such tactics allowed Kuzma, who clearly isn’t fully healthy quite yet (as evidence by the little success he had getting around, well, anyone off the dribble these first few games) to have a bit of a running start, and he took advantage.
Frank Vogel was the coach who put him in those spots, and he sounded pretty proud of Kuzma’s progress after the win:
“We know he’s capable of that. That’s no surprise to anybody… He made some big buckets and carried us. We’ve been proceeding in the season with wanting to have LeBron or Anthony on the floor at all times, but having Kuz back, getting Rondo back, it will allow those guys to rest more and have opportunities where they’re both on the bench, because one of those guys can step up and carry the load like Kuz did.”
Let’s just ignore the Rondo tidbit for a second (or forever). But there is something to what Vogel is saying about what a healthy Kuzma does for Davis and James’ minutes. Furthermore, an extension of the point Vogel makes here is that the more comfortable the Lakers are resting both Davis and James at the same time, the more time they could potentially spend on the court together, which makes the Lakers a more dangerous team.
Now, I don’t think it’s possible for Kuzma to play so well that they’re ever actually all that comfortable in James-and-Davis-less minutes, but Kuzma did at least show enough that the theory is worth considering.
More than anything, though, it was great to see Kuzma start to get his legs under him and play with more confidence than he’s shown to this point. Success as a result of such confidence tends to lead to further belief in oneself, so here’s hoping we see more of both.