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Alex Caruso is ready for this moment

Alex Caruso hit the biggest shot he’s ever taken in the NBA playoffs last night. His Lakers teammates couldn’t have been less surprised he came through when it mattered.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Houston Rockets - Game Four Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Alex Caruso started playing basketball when he was in first grade. He’s played the sport at every level, from recreational teams, to college, the G League and now the NBA playoffs. So when LeBron James passed to him in the corner as the Rockets closed the gap on the Lakers in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals, Caruso wasn’t afraid. He didn’t have nerves.

He was just playing basketball, something he’s done his whole life.

“Honestly, I don’t think too much when I shoot. I just get it, and kind of let natural body motion take over,” Caruso said on Zoom after scoring 16 points off the bench to help the Lakers to a 110-100 victory that gave them a 3-1 series lead in the second round. “I’ve been practicing that corner three from Bron all year. Just knowing that he makes the right decision at the end of the game, and there was a packed paint and I’m wide-open in the corner.

“It was just about me having the cojones to step in, take the shot, not be afraid of the miss, and that’s just who I am. Game’s on the line, I’m a competitor, I’m playing to win,” Caruso continued. “If the ball comes to me, I’m going to be ready to go.”

And for Caruso, this is more than just coachspeak. If you spend much time around him, a few things become clear. For one thing, he has a terrifically dry sense of humor he sneaks in little showcases of all the time during interviews, and for another, he is actually as humble as his quotes make him seem. It’s not some white guy, coach’s son cliche, either. He just does not by into sports media tropes about what he’s thinking as a he shoots, or how much pressure was there for him, or does it give him extra confidence when LeBron James passes it to him.

For him, this is just basketball. There is nothing complicated or extra about it. Whether he’s playing as a role player in the NBA or as the star of a youth team, he just wants to make the right play that helps his team win. That’s his job, and it’s as simple as that. It’s why when he was asked after the game if this was the biggest shot he’s ever hit, his answer wasn’t exactly surprising.

“Nah, I hit a game-winner when I was in AAU from the opposite free-throw line. That was probably a harder shot than this one,” Caruso deadpanned, pausing for around five seconds before finally breaking with a smile. “No, I’m joking with you, but as far as importance, man, I don’t know. There are still so many possessions late in the game, we don’t know if we win the game on that shot or not, but like I said, rain or shine, whether it goes in or not, I’m ready to step up and shoot it.

“My teammates have confidence in me, my coaches have confidence in me. I’m out there for a reason.”

Los Angeles Lakers v Houston Rockets - Game Four Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

In another world, Caruso’s popularity in the Lakers’ fanbase might not be received so well in the locker room. As someone who averaged just 5.5 points in 18.4 minutes per game, and yet was arguably the third-most popular player on the team behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis, a guy who got “M-V-P” chants from the Staples Center crowd and was a viral sensation, he could have been side-eyed by teammates as a novelty. An overhyped meme who was only beloved for being a shockingly athletic, balding white guy more than an actual basketball player.

But aside from selling a bit of “Carushow” merch here and there, Caruso has never hyped himself. He always downplays his own accomplishments, goes out of his way to effusively praise and credit his teammates, and just works. In the process, rather than being resented for receiving credit that may sometimes exceed his contributions, he has become a beloved presence in the locker room. His teammates see how hard he’s worked to grind his way from going undrafted, to getting a two-way contract and then finally playing his way into an NBA deal. They’ve watched him tirelessly do whatever is asked of him, from defending stars like James Harden and Damian Lillard to constantly screening and moving on offense despite rarely getting scoring opportunities. They know he’s more than just a meme, and as a result have grown to get as much joy out of hyping Caruso up as the internet does.

Whether it’s LeBron calling Caruso “GOAT,” or JaVale McGee asking his video editor to make a whole hype video comparing Caruso to Billy Hoyle from “White Men Can’t Jump” or calling him “The Bald Eagle,” they are having as much fun watching one of the hardest workers on the team flourish in his moment as the rest of us.

“AC is amazing. He comes in, works every day, and it shows,” said teammate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. “He’s one of the guys that is just going to give us that energy off the bench, he’s going to dive for loose balls, he’s going to guard the best players, and we need that energy off the bench. AC is great.”

Those qualities and more are why James said he never had a second thought about hitting Caruso in the corner for what — AAU full-court heaves aside — likely qualifies as by far the biggest shot of his young career. He’s heard the criticism he’s gotten in the past for making the right basketball play and not taking the shot himself when his role players miss, but even with Caruso shooting just 28.6% from deep in the playoffs so far, he had faith that his teammate would come through.

“We have so much confidence in AC, a guy that played a lot of his time in the G League, pretty much before this year. Last year he got called up a couple times, but a lot of his time was in the G League, and for him now to be in this position, be on this platform where he’s playing meaningful, big-time minutes for a team that’s competing for a championship, I think his confidence is growing and growing,” James said, effusively crediting Caruso for how much improvement he’s made by just the ninth playoff game of his career.

“He’s a guy we know we can count on, doesn’t make many mistakes on the floor, and just plays winning basketball. That’s just who he is, so to have him in crunch time, I didn’t have one second guess on if I was going to hit him in that corner when I saw he had a little bit of space,” James continued. “He knows that I have the confidence in him to knock it down, and he shot it and made it. It wasn’t a surprise to any of us.”

Least of all Caruso, who didn’t spend even a microsecond thinking about what hitting that late shot over Harden would mean, or if it was the biggest jumper of his career. He just stepped into his motion and shot it, the same as he would any other jumper.

“You know, for me it’s just so simple. It’s basketball, man,” Caruso said. “I’ve played so many times, and with so many people, obviously LeBron is the best player I’ve ever played with and probably ever will play with, and having him on my side obviously brings a lot of confidence, but I got here because I’m confident in myself, man.

“I don’t make it out of the G League, I don’t make it out of undrafted if I don’t have self-confidence or some kind of self-belief, you know? And it’s not to the point of arrogance,” Caruso continued. “But when I’m in the game, I’m there for a reason.”

On Thursday night, with the whole NBA world watching, he proved it.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.

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