Wednesday was a Christmas Day to forget for the Los Angeles Lakers. For the second time this season, the Lakers fell to the LA Clippers at Staples Center — shrinking the gap between them and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference to two games and extending their losing streak to four games.
For Kyle Kuzma, though, it was a big step in the right direction.
In 27:27, Kuzma scored a team-high 25 points — including 15 points in the first quarter — on 47.1% shooting from the field and 44.4% shooting from behind the arc. He also contributed four rebounds and a steal.
That performance marked the first time since Nov. 13 that Kuzma surpassed the 20-point mark. In the 22 games he’s played this season, he’s only scored more than 20 points three times. Through 22 games last season, he did it six times.
Kuzma’s dip in raw scoring numbers can be attributed to the smaller role he’s been forced to play alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but it can also be attributed to the nagging injuries he’s dealt with this season. Kuzma has missed nine of the 31 games the Lakers have played this season and he also missed all of the preseason with a stress reaction he suffered in August.
Now, after having two weeks to recover from an ankle injury he suffered earlier this month, Kuzma said he feels fresh and he’s ready to show it on the court.
“I mean this is what I look like when I’m healthy and I’m confident in my body,” Kuzma said after Wednesday night’s game. “Like I said, I’ve been hurt all year and this is the best I’ve felt, and my play the past two games reflected it.”
It still remains to be seen how Vogel plans to use Kuzma — especially on nights where the Lakers’ centers are playing at a high level — but it’s safe to say Kuzma’s on his new head coach’s good side.
Following Wednesday night’s game, Vogel praised the intensity that Kuzma played with and said that he envisions the third-year forward playing a big role going forward.
“He always plays hard, with great energy,” Vogel said. “This is the Kuz that we envisioned throughout all of summer and since I’ve been here. Somebody that can just fill it up. He’s working hard on the defensive end, gives us a long body on that end. He plays extremely hard and changes the energy of the group.
“He was terrific tonight and it’s good to see him get going. He’ll be a big part of what we do down the stretch for the rest of the season.”
The Lakers have rolled out 15 different lineups featuring James, Kuzma and Davis. Of those 15 lineups, only one has a negative net rating (-1.1): Bradley, Green, James, Kuzma and Davis.
The lineup that has looked the most impressive with that trio includes Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green. The five-man lineup of Caldwell-Pope, Green, James, Kuzma and Davis posted a net rating of +63.2 in the nine minutes they played together on Christmas Day. On the season, that lineup is a +31.8.
Looking ahead, the hope is that everyone can stay healthy long enough to evaluate which pieces fit around James, Kuzma and Davis. A larger sample size could also have the opposite effect and reveal that Kuzma is an awkward fit alongside James and Davis.
Whatever the case may be, the Lakers will have all the time they need to evaluate Kuzma and if Kuzma feels as good as he says he does, that evaluation shouldn’t take too long.