In the first round, Kyle Kuzma averaged 10.8 points per game on 36% shooting from the field, the latter of which is the among the worst field goal percentages of anyone that’s attempted 50 field goals in the playoffs. Only Paul George (35.8%), Josh Richardson (35.7%), Evan Fournier (35.1%) and Timothe Luwawau-Cabbarot have shot worse from the field on 50 or more attempts from the field.
And yet, Kuzma has been a net positive for the Los Angeles Lakers because of how well he’s played on the defensive end. Through the first five postseason games of his career, Kuzma has posted a defensive rating of 94.2, which is the second-highest defensive rating on the team behind Alex Caruso (90.2).
All of this came against the team that had the best offensive rating in the seeding games, and the third-best offense of any team in the league during the regular season. Kuzma wasn’t just impressive by his standards; he was just impressive, full stop. He’s also confident he can continue to make an impact on the defensive end in the second round because of the challenges he faced in the first.
“I think, from an individual standpoint, that every series is a chance for me to get better,” Kuzma said. “My main job right now is to just come in, bring energy and defend at a high level. And being able to guard the great guards that Portland has is only going to help me guard the great guards that Houston has, or coming into whoever else we play. It doesn’t matter. It’s all a stepping stone to get better, especially for us. It was huge.
“A lot of people said that we couldn’t guard the 3 and that we didn’t really have dynamic perimeter defense, and we showed people that we did that. Obviously in the bubble play, (Portland) averaged 121 points and they probably averaged around 100 for the last series (Editor’s Note: It was actually 126 and 106.6, respectively). It helps.”
Ironically, one of Kuzma’s first standout games on the defensive end was against the Houston Rockets. In the Lakers’ first matchup with the Rockets in January, they struggled to contain Russell Westbrook with their guards, so Frank Vogel made the bold decision to have Kuzma guard Westbrook.
What Kuzma showed in that game is similar to what he’s shown in the playoffs, which is the ability to use his length and foot speed to slow players down. The difference now is that Kuzma sees himself as a defensive specialist and, as a result, has made an effort to clean up his mistakes on that end.
“I’m just taking pride in defense and trying to help this team try to win games,” Kuzma said. “Everybody makes a big deal out of me trying to be the third option and, to me, our team’s not necessarily built like that. And I think that, for me, my way to make that super impact is trying to be the third-best player.
“That’s from the standpoint of trying to lock guys up, playing with energy because that’s my strength, and just trying to give myself to the team and just trying to play hard,” Kuzma continued. “I’ve noticed just trying to do that, it’s really allowed me to flourish. Getting steals, getting blocks, taking the challenge of guarding, CJ, Dame, Melo, Nurkic ... just guarding everyone.”
Kuzma’s leap on the defensive end can be attributed to a few things: Vogel’s trust in Kuzma taking those defensive assignments, the quality of veterans he’s been surrounded by this season, his new role, his health and the natural progression that comes with a player in his third year. However, the biggest difference for Kuzma came on the mental side.
“I think before, I’d kind of be a little anxious on defense, worrying about if the guy scores on me,” Kuzma said. “But now, it’s not necessarily that. I really ... I don’t care. I don’t care if I get scored on. I’m just gonna keep coming, attacking and trying to get stops. And I think having that mentality has really helped me as a player grow this year, especially on the defensive end.
“I just take it personal. I get pissed when I get scored on. I don’t want to be scored on. That’s just my whole mindset: just trying to be a dog out there and stop guys so that when we get on a break and come home, (I can) have a glass of wine with a win.”
If Kuzma continues to play the level of defense he’s shown in the bubble, he might have to get a few new bottles shipped to Orlando.