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Lakers vs. Clippers Preview: Searching for a ballhandler

Alex Caruso is going to have to step up for the Lakers with both LeBron James and Dennis Schröder sidelined against the Clippers.

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Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

LeBron James was not able to join the Lakers on the floor for their 15th practice of the season on Wednesday, and head coach Frank Vogel confirmed that the team would be without their star for at least Thursday’s game against the Clippers. James will continue be day-to-day moving forward as he continues to recover from a high ankle sprain that will have now cost him at least 22 of the team’s 72 games.

But with James out and Dennis Schröder likely to miss the rest of the regular season in the health and safety protocols, the Lakers are severely lacking in playmakers. Making matters worse, the raw but talented Talen Horton-Tucker also missed Wednesday’s practice with a calf strain, and is being listed by the team as questionable to play against the Clippers.

It’s all left Frank Vogel scrambling from dealing with the good problem of having too many centers to dealing with the bad one of not having enough point guards.

“That’s all we’re talking about right now, is short-term reinventing ourselves while those guys are out,” Vogel said. “Everybody has got to be able to handle the rock. And we have to have more of a multiple ballhandler approach with our offense.”

Vogel said Caruso (and Horton-Tucker, if healthy) would handle the ball a lot more as traditional point guards than they otherwise would, but that we will also see nontraditional solutions like Anthony Davis handling the ball in pick and rolls more, something the Lakers already did against the Denver Nuggets in their most recent win.

Still, any solution they come up with is going to be imperfect, because this remaining roster is imperfect, and it’s all coming while they try to develop chemistry and cohesion with their new starting frontcourt pairing of Davis and Drummond during an injury-riddled season.

“We’re working on our offensive spacing and we’re also working on building the AD/Drummond relationship and their spacing concepts, so there’s a lot in play here,” Vogel said. “We’re just trying to make the best of it. It’s certainly a great challenge not having your two primary ballhandlers available in these important games.”

Bearing the brunt of that “great challenge” will be Caruso, who will go from the team’s dogged and tireless point-of-attack defender and fifth option to primary offensive initiator. Can he keep up the same level of energy on defense despite taking on a much larger load on the other end?

“We’ll see,” Caruso said. “I haven’t really had the opportunity to go through that for a long stretch, so I’m excited for the opportunity.”

At the very least, he’s used to getting thrown into the fire and having to show what he can do.

“This is nothing new for me in my career. Opportunity for me has always been something that presented itself and something that I kind of work towards being ready for,” Caruso said. “I’m excited to play.

“I’m playing against some of the best players in the league night in, night out for this stretch,” Caruso continued. “For me, I’m competitive, and some of these teams are good teams, so I’m just looking forward to the challenge.”

Drummond credited the way Caruso has risen up to meet the difficult circumstances he’s been placed in as a big part of the team’s upset victory over Denver.

“Alex is a far better point guard than people give him credit for. He’s a very good floor general,” Drummond said. “Alex has been a great leader for us, too. Bringing us all in when it comes to the huddles, he’s always in constant communication with everybody on the team.”

The team has been in constant communication with Caruso, too, from Anthony Davis and assistant coach Phil Handy telling him to stay aggressive as a scorer after three straight turnovers against the Nuggets, to Drummond asking Caruso how he can help him adjust.

“Making his job easier will be fun for me,” Drummond said. “Obviously he’s not a guy that’s going to break somebody off 1-on-1, so running the pick and roll and playing that game with him is a chemistry thing I need to build with him.”

How will Drummond do so?

“Just spending some time with him watching film, in practice learning where he likes his pick and rolls and when he wants them, what hand he likes to use when he goes for layups so when I seal I close that area for him,” Drummond said. “There’s just many different areas of his game that I can help him with and make him better.”

Los Angeles Lakers v Dallas Mavericks
Caruso and Drummond was probably not the star duo TNT was expecting when they put this game on national TV.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Given that the traditional floor general-less Lakers will be playing a nearly full-strength Clippers team on national TV in what could be a potential first-round playoff preview if current Western Conference standings hold, the purple and gold aren’t going to be favored.

But LeBron or no LeBron, Caruso said this team is ready to fight.

“I might be a little naive in saying this, but I really believe that I can win any basketball game that I play in. That’s just kind of my nature as a competitor. As a human being, I just had that mindset to get to this point in my career,” Caruso said. “I really feel like any basketball game I play in, I’m going to win at any given time. No matter the score, I feel like I have a chance.

“Obviously we love to have LeBron on our team. He makes things a lot easier. He’s a really good player,” Caruso continued. “But I think we have a good enough group to win games right now.”

Notes and Updates

  • Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (right ankle sprain), Anthony Davis (right calf strain), Marc Gasol (volar plate fracture, left pinkie finger) and Kyle Kuzma (left thumb sprain) are all probable for the Lakers.
  • The one main player missing for the Clippers? Serge Ibaka, who has mysteriously missed seven weeks with what the Clippers have only called “lower back tightness.” The team says he still has no timetable.
  • At 37-28, a loss in this game would tie the currently sixth-place Lakers with the Blazers (37-29) in the Western Conference standings, making the Friday game between the two teams not only a tie-breaker for their season series, but a potentially pivotal contest if L.A. wants to avoid a play-in spot.

The Lakers and Clippers will tip off at 7:00 p.m. at Staples Center. The game will be televised exclusively on TNT.

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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