On Monday night, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 128-99, which marked their fifth time beating a team by more than 20 points this season. However, while it was the result many expected, it wasn’t the one that seemed likely at the start of the game.
Midway through the second quarter of Monday’s contest, the Lakers trailed the Cavs by 14 points and were shooting under 35% from the field. Meanwhile, Cleveland was making close to 60% of shot their shots, including over 40% from behind the arc.
The Cavaliers’ biggest run came when Frank Vogel experimented with a lineup where Quinn Cook was the primary ball-handler in the absence of Rajon Rondo, who missed Monday’s game with a fractured right finger. That experiment was short-lived, as Darius Garland shot 2-3 from the field when guarded by Cook and the Lakers allowed the Cavs to score at a rate that would have equaled 111.1 points per 100 possessions in the four minutes Cook was initiating the offense. He ended the first half with a game-low net rating of -39.6.
Naturally, Vogel had to make an adjustment, and his solution was to put Alex Caruso — a more defensive-minded guard — into the game. That decision paid off, as the Lakers went on a 23-9 run to end the first and went into halftime down just one point thanks in large part to Caruso’s contributions on both ends of the floor. He ended the first half with a game-high net rating of 41.7.
From that point on, the Lakers had complete control of the game, scoring 81 points in the second half, the most points they’ve scored in any half since 1987. While the Lakers didn’t win solely because of Caruso, he gave them a boost when they needed it.
After the game, LeBron James, who led all scorers with 31 points, praised Caruso for doing the little things that help the Lakers win.
“Pretty much every time he’s in the game he’s a plus guy. He just does so much,” James said. “Sometimes it shows up in the box score, sometimes it don’t, but he’s just always a plus guy. He’s going to defend at a high level, he’s going to get guys involved. He’s very smart, very tough. To have him on this ball club, it’s a luxury.”
Having an elite playmaker like James on the floor with Caruso maximize’s his skillset as a secondary creator and cutter. In fact, no lineups that featured both James and Caruso posted a negative net rating on Monday. On the season, the two-man lineup of James and Caruso has posted a ludicrous net rating of +27.4, which is the highest net rating of any two-man pairing featuring James (minimum 100 minutes played). Kyle Kuzma and James are second with a net rating of +18.4.
But just because Caruso is at his best when playing with a facilitator doesn’t mean that he’s useless without one. The truth is, Caruso can play with just about anyone, which is what head coach Frank Vogel thinks makes him such an important part of the roster.
”He’s a jack of all trades,” Vogel said. “We’ve been playing him at the wing, as a defensive specialist, he can handle the point... He’s just an invaluable piece of our success this year for the variety of ways we can use him.
“He just has great value because of the versatility that he has to his game.”
Before the season started, the fanfare around Caruso had a lot to do with the shocking contrast between his physical appearance and athletic ability. But with the first half of the regular season in the books, Caruso’s established himself as one of the three-most valuable guards on the roster, and arguably one of the team’s three best defenders.
Caruso may look like a jacked Homer Simpson, but make no mistake: He’s really good, too.