In Game 6 of the NBA Finals last season, Frank Vogel decided to move Alex Caruso into the starting lineup. That adjustment was a big reason why the Los Angeles Lakers were able to avoid going into a win-or-go-home Game 7 with the Miami Heat.
And with the possibility of another elimination game looming in the Lakers’ play-in game with the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday, Vogel turned to Caruso once again, and once again, he delivered. Not only did Caruso do the little things that he usually does on the defensive end, but he carried the Lakers on offense in the first half, scoring a team-high 12 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting from the field.
Caruso only scored two more points in the second half, but he posted a team-high defensive rating of 81.3 in the 16 minutes he played in the second half. With Caruso on the bench, the Lakers’ defensive rating plummeted to 105.6.
It’s a crime that Alex Caruso is not going to make an All-Defensive Team— Ry (@JustRyCole) May 20, 2021
This possession is nuts pic.twitter.com/0gHeqYrxHh
Caruso’s importance to the Lakers is no secret, at least for the people that have watched him since he joined the team on a full-time basis in 2019. But games like Wednesday are a reminder of just how valuable he can be.
“He was awesome all night long,” Frank Vogel said of Caruso on Wednesday. “When we were struggling offensively, he was 5-5 in the first half, making plays, making shots, defending his tail off and obviously made huge plays down the stretch on both sides of the ball.
“He’s a champion. He’s one of those guys that just moves the needle directly with his play immediately, and he had a great performance tonight.”
Vogel’s right: Caruso is a champion, but it was the thought of being a two-time champion that motivated Caruso on Wednesday.
“I’m really just trying to win another championship man,” Caruso said. “I don’t think too big picture until it’s over with.
“I just love playing basketball, (and) we’ve got a good-ass team,” Caruso added. “I’m just competitive, man. I like to play basketball.”
The climax of Caruso’s night came in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers and Warriors were knotted at 98 with just under two minutes left on the game clock. LeBron James had the ball behind the 3-point line with the hope of trying to create some sort of separation between him and Andrew Wiggins, but when it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, he gave the ball up to Caruso.
When Caruso got the ball, he took a strong first step to the basket, blew by Kent Bazemore and dropped the ball off to Anthony Davis for a dunk before he could be met at the rim by Draymond Green. Other than James’ 34-foot heave that ultimately won the Lakers the game, that was the play of the night.
“He’s just smart, smart, smart,” James said of Caruso. “He knows what we want to do, is always in the right place at the right time, and he just makes plays. Some of them show up in the box score and some of them don’t, but tonight they definitely showed up in the box score. He definitely carried us in the first half offensively and we just had to match him in the second half.”
There was a good amount of trust from LeBron on this play. The initial blitz forced the ball out of his hands which he kicked to Caruso for him to create late in the shotclock— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) May 20, 2021
Caruso aware of the time restraint, decisively attacks the closeout & creates the 2-on-1 advantage dunk pic.twitter.com/HWfPtoaacf
It’s easy to forget that Caruso is only in his second full season in the NBA. Prior to signing his first fully guaranteed contract in 2019, the majority of his playing time came in the G League with the South Bay Lakers.
But while Caruso doesn’t have the NBA experience that some of his teammates have, he has championship experience — and not just any championship experience: championship experience with this Lakers team.
“We’ve got guys that have played in the playoffs before, but they haven’t played with the pressure of being a defending champ, or the pressure of playing for the Lakers, or whatever you want to call it, right?” Caruso said. “So there’s just a different mindset that you have to have going into the playoffs that I learned last year. I had great vets that taught me and gave me examples, and a great coaching staff that guided us through it too, so for me, I’m just trying to pull those guys along.
“I reminded a couple guys today, like, ‘this is why we’re here. All year, this is what we play for. This two months is the reason that we’re on the Lakers, the reason that we’re here with LeBron and AD and our coaching staff. This is do or die. This is why we play the game.’ And I also talked about finding ways to win games you don’t play perfect,” Caruso continued. “They talk about the glory at the end of the road when you hoist the trophy. You have a parade, and celebrate the winners, but the grind and the grit that it takes to get there is something that can’t be overlooked.
“Fighting through bad games, trying to win when you don’t play perfect, that’s what it takes to win championships.”
There are things that Caruso isn’t quite as experienced in, though, For example, Wednesday was the first postseason game he had ever played in front of fans. Last season, his biggest postseason performances came in an empty gym in Orlando.
“The energy in the stadium was great tonight with the fans back,” Caruso said. “Having people sit courtside. Fans cheering in timeouts. I kind of felt that energy and I was a little anxious during the game before the national anthem because I was so juiced up. I was ready to go. The atmosphere was great. I kind of calmed myself down but then obviously came out and played well.”
Caruso’s contributions may end up being only a small part of the Lakers’ championship run, but without them, we may not even be talking about a championship run. It’s clear his teammates have noticed, and if he keeps this up heading into free agency, the rest of the league finally will too.