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Knicks’ Struggles Show They Must Get With the Times

The Knicks’ antiquated offense and lack of impact guards are the biggest reasons for their struggles this season.

Tommy Beer

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The New York Knicks traveled to Golden State on Wednesday and, unsurprisingly, got demolished. It was the Warriors’ 50th straight home win and as has happened in so many of those 50 consecutive victories, the Warriors’ backcourt embarrassed their opponents. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson outscored the counterparts (Jose Calderon and Sasha Vujacic) 53 to six.

While getting annihilated by the incomparable combo of Curry and Thompson is certainly forgivable, this has been (unfortunately for New York) a constant theme all year long.

Earlier this month, the Portland Trail Blazers’ starting guards (Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum) poured in a combined 55 points at MSG in a Portland win. This defeat in particular highlighted what ails the disappointing Knicks, which lies in stark contrast to what has powered the surprisingly impressive play of the Blazers.

Specifically, the incredible importance of guard play in today’s NBA.

New York and Portland are two teams constructed quite differently. The Blazers have a below-average frontcourt (Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis, Moe Harkless), but have an terrific backcourt led by Lillard and McCollum. Portland has been one of the NBA’s most pleasant surprises this season. Despite losing five of their top six scorers from last season’s team, they are sitting at sixth in the Western Conference with a 35-33 record.

The Knicks, on the other hand, have a strong frontcourt (Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Robin Lopez), but have failed to overcome below-average guard play (and an antiquated offensive system – more on that later) all season. The Knicks are 28-41 and 13th in the Eastern Conference.

The moral of the story is that it’s very difficult to score efficiently enough to consistently win in today’s NBA if you do not have talented guards who have the ability to penetrate into the paint (setting up scoring opportunities for themselves and others) and knock down shots from behind the arc.

This certainly wasn’t always the case. For most of the league’s history, talented big men have been crucial cogs on championship teams/dynasties. Having a top-tier center was all but essential for sustained success. The league’s most important and most celebrated players were often big men who dominated the paint. This was especially true during the NBA’s formative years.

From 1957 through 1980, 22 of the 23 players named MVP were centers. Yes, only once over the course of that 23-year period did a non-center (Oscar Robertson in 1964) take home MVP honors. And in the 1990s, big men were again front and center. For instance, in 1993-94 (the first season following Michael Jordan’s initial retirement) four centers finished in the top five in MVP voting (Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal and Patrick Ewing).

However, the NBA has undergone a metamorphic change. Traditionally dominant back-to-the-basket centers are all but extinct. Guards and wings dominate the league in 2016. A center hasn’t taken home MVP honors since the early 2000s. In fact, over the last 11 years, only once has a center even cracked the top three in MVP voting.

Rule changes, both big and small (introduction of the three-point shot, allowance of zone defenses, elimination of hand checking that allows guards to more easily penetrate into the paint, etc.) have resulted in limiting the impact of post players. Consequently, the relative importance of guards and wings has skyrocketed. Today, the teams that are able to take advantage of this shifting landscape are the ones that often stand atop of the league standings.

Whereas it was once seemingly essential to have a dominant pivot, there is now a very strong correlation between league’s best teams and the teams with the best guards.

Take a look at the standings. There are six teams (the Warriors, Clippers, Thunder, Raptors, Spurs and Cavaliers) that have tallied more than 40 wins thus far this season. These six squads aren’t reliant on a dominant center and feature five of the better point guards in the NBA today (Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and Kyrie Irving).

There are currently 10 guards in the NBA with a Player Efficiency Rating north of 20.5. All 10 of them play for teams that would qualify for the playoffs if the regular season ended today.

Of the top six teams in each conference, the average PER for those 12 point guards is 22.2.

In contrast, the 12 starting point guards for the teams with the 12 worst records in the NBA is just 13.2.

On a similar note, another differentiating statistic is the number of three-pointers each team makes. Interestingly, in a nod to the changing landscape of game, the 2015-16 campaign is on pace to become the first season in NBA history in which there are more three-pointers than free throws attempted. The teams that take and make the most threes tend to be the teams that rack up the most victories. Those near the bottom of the NBA in long-range attempts and makes tend to lose more often than they win.

Ten of the 11 teams that have made more than 600 three-pointers this season have winning records and would qualify for the playoffs if the regular season ended today. In contrast, nine of the 13 teams that have made fewer than 550 made three-pointers this season have losing records and will likely find themselves on the outside of the postseason picture looking in.

The late, great Al McGuire once said that every great team needs an “aircraft carrier,” a big man around which to build a franchise. Back in McGuire’s day, that was true. These days, you need a smaller, faster, quicker Naval fleet. Aircraft carriers serve to anchor an offense, which only slow teams down. In today’s NBA, a group of speed boats are preferable to a lumbering, larger ship.

Many of the players who are considered the best centers in the NBA this season play for teams far-below .500. Anthony Davis is an incredible two-way player, yet he can only carry the New Orleans Pelicans (25-42 record this season) so far by himself. DeMarcus Cousins’ Sacramento Kings are 15 games below .500. Brook Lopez’s Brooklyn Nets are 30 games below .500. Rising superstar Karl-Anthony Towns has exceeded even the loftiest expectations, yet the Minnesota Timberwolves are 25 games below .500. The Milwaukee Bucks (Greg Monroe) and the Orlando Magic (Nikola Vucevic) will also fail to qualify for the postseason.

There are 12 centers in the NBA with PERs above 17, yet only three of these centers play for teams that are playoff-bound.

Having a top-tier point guard is more important than it’s ever been.

Which bring us back to the Knicks.

Jose Calderon is simply no longer a starting-caliber point guard. Sasha Vujacic has started alongside Calderon in the New York backcourt for five straight games. They are unarguably the worst starting guard pairing in the NBA.

Further complicating matters, Phil Jackson has installed Kurt Rambis as his interim head coach and the Knicks stubbornly continue to run the Triangle Offense, despite the diminishing returns it has produced.

The Knicks remain stuck in the past, relying on an offensive system that flourished when executed by legendary, all-time great players in an era when the rules and pace of play were far different from the reality of the NBA today. The Triangle Offense relies far too heavily on mid-range jumpers and rarely incorporates pick-and-rolls.

Unsurprisingly, when ESPN ranked NBA franchise according to the extent to which each team has embraced analytics, the Knicks landed on the lowest rung of the ladder, and were labeled “non-believers.” Of all 122 professional sports franchises ranked, the Knicks came in at 121, ahead of only the Philadelphia Phillies.

In an interview with the New York Times last February, Jackson explained he wasn’t ready to capitulate and implement changes into the Knicks’ offense.

“I think it’s still debatable about how basketball is going to be played, what’s going to win out,” Jackson said, leaving no-doubt of his disdain for the point-guard-dominated concept of “screen-and-roll, break down, pass, and two of three players standing in spots, not participating in the offense.”

The Knicks have not been winning in the two seasons since Jackson took control. And after digging deeper into the numbers, part of the reason is because the team seems to be running an outdated operating system.

New York’s inability and/or unwillingness to penetrate into the paint has been a monumental problem. Per NBA.com/stats, the Knicks rank dead last in drives per game. Twenty-eight of the 30 teams in the NBA average over 21 drives to the basket per game. Meanwhile, New York averages just 15.1 drives, which result in only 10.3 points per game. (NBA.com classifies a “drive” as any touch that starts at least 20 feet from the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks.)

There are five teams in the league that average 30 or more drives per contest. Not to mention, every team in the NBA other than the Knicks averages at least 10.5 field goal attempts per game off drives to the bucket.

Another issue maddening fans in New York is the puzzling rotations the Knicks have employed this season. Coach Rambis is inexplicably starting Vujacic and playing Calderon heavy minutes, despite the fact that the Knicks are 13 games below .500, have no chance of making the playoffs and don’t own their first-round pick in the upcoming 2016 NBA Draft. New York selected Jerian Grant in the first round last summer, but the rookie floor general remains buried on the bench behind the aging vets. The Knicks need to find out just how good Grant is and start developing him. They aren’t going to learn anything about his potential or prepare him for prime time if he rots on the bench behind players who are obviously not a part of the franchise’s future. Furthermore, Grant has been far more successful penetrating into the paint and getting to the free-throw stripe than either of the veterans starting ahead of him.

Calderon and Vujacic have scored a combined 98 points in the paint in the 2,460 minutes they have played this season.

Grant has scored 138 points in the paint in the 980 minutes he has played.

Calderon and Vujacic have combined to take a total of 75 free-throw attempts this season.

Grant has attempted 97 free-throws.

Furthermore, an unfortunate by-product of the Triangle Offense is an over-reliance on mid-range jump shots. Per NBA.com, from 2010 through 2015 mid-range shots (made at 39.5 percent) have been worth just 0.80 points per attempt, while three-point shots (made at 35.5 percent) have been worth 1.06 points per attempt.

The Knicks attempt, on average, 27.7 mid-range shots each game, the most in the NBA.

Carmelo Anthony, in particular, is too often camped out in this unfriendly and inefficient No Man’s Land. Only one player in the NBA has attempted more than 480 mid-range jumpers: Carmelo, who has launched 509 shots from this range. Even if this is where ‘Melo is most comfortable, the Knicks are doing him a disservice by not putting him in a position to succeed.

In addition, New York doesn’t incorporate mismatch-creating screens nearly as often as the rest of the league. According to data from Synergy Sports, the Knicks execute pick-and-rolls in just 10.5 percent of their offensive possessions, which ranks last in the league. New York has scored a grand total of 581 points off screen-and-rolls this season, the fewest in the NBA. There are eight teams in the NBA that have scored more than twice as many points off pick-and-rolls.

The individual player most adversely impacted by the Knicks’ antiquated offense is their franchise cornerstone, Porzingis. As the Wall Street Journal detailed this week, Rambis has intimated that he prefers Porzingis to catch the ball deep in the post, with his back to the basket. This would be doing defenders a favor, as Porzingis is at his best when in space on the perimeter where, due to his ability to knock down threes and put the ball on the floor, the Latvian big man is matchup nightmare.

Porzingis is a beast who should be unleashed on the league. Instead, he’s playing for a coach – and in a system – that appears to be stifling his production. Per NBA.com, Porzingis has a been screen-setter on pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops on just 14.4 percent of the offensive possessions for which he is on the floor. That’s a travesty.

Porzingis is a player blessed by the Basketball Gods with a skill set that is perfectly suited to dominate in today’s NBA.

But will he be able to fulfill his vast potential in New York? The answer may depend on whether the Knicks are able to procure an elite point guard for him to run with, and if New York embraces and implements a modernized offense that allows Porzingis and his future floor general to flourish.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Daily: Tyronn Lue is the Right Coach for the Clippers

Is Lue the right coach for the Los Angeles Clippers? David Yapkowitz thinks so.

David Yapkowitz

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When Doc Rivers was first hired by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013, the expectation was that he would be the one to guide the franchise into respectability. A laughingstock of the NBA for pretty much their entire existence, marred by bad coaching, bad management and bad ownership, Rivers was supposed to help change all of that.
For the most part, he did.

Rivers arrived from the Boston Celtics with the 2008 championship, and he helped the Celtics regain their standing as one of the NBA’s elite teams. The Clippers were a perennial playoff contender under him and were even in the conversation for being a possible championship contender. The Lob City Clippers led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin certainly were talked about as being a title contender, and this season’s group led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were definitely in the mix as well.

Not only did Rivers steady the team on the court though, but he was also a very steadying presence off the court. He guided the franchise through the Donald Sterling controversy and he was a positive voice for the team as they navigated the bubble and the ongoing charge for social reform in the country.

But when things go wrong with a team, the coach is usually the one who ends up taking the fall. While Rivers did bring the Clippers to a level of respectability the franchise has never known, his record was not without blemishes. Most notably was his team’s inability to close out playoff series’ after holding three games to one on advantages two separate occasions.

In 2015, the Clippers had a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets only to squander that lead and lose Game 7 on the road. In Game 6, their shots stopped falling and neither Paul nor Griffin could do anything to halt the Rockets onslaught.

This season, in an incredibly similar fashion, the Clippers choked away a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets and ended up getting blown out the second half of Game 7. Just like before, the offense stalled multiple games and neither Leonard nor George could make a difference.

There were also questions about Rivers’ rotations and his seeming inability to adjust to his opponents. In the end, something had to change, and whether it’s right or wrong, the coach usually ends up taking the fall.

Enter Tyronn Lue. Lue, like Rivers, is also a former NBA player and has a great deal of respect around the league. He came up under Rivers, getting his first coaching experience as an assistant in Boston, and then following Rivers to the Clippers.

He ended up joining David Blatt’s staff in Cleveland in 2014, and when Blatt was fired in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Lue was promoted to head coach. In the playoffs that year, Lue guided the Cavaliers to victory in their first 10 playoff games. They reached the Finals where they famously came back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the franchise’s first championship.

The Cavaliers reached the Finals each full year of Lue’s tenure as head coach, but he was let go at the start of the 2018-19 season when the team started 0-6 after the departure of LeBron James.

In the 2019 offseason, Lue emerged as the leading candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job, before he ultimately rejected the team’s offer. After rejoining Rivers in LA with the Clippers for a year, he once again emerged as a leading candidate for multiple head coaching positions this offseason before agreeing to terms with the Clippers.

Following the Clippers series loss to the Nuggets, many players openly talked about the team’s lack of chemistry and how that may have played a factor in the team’s postseason demise. Adding two-star players in Leonard and George was always going to be a challenge from a chemistry standpoint, and the Clippers might have secured the perfect man to step up to that challenge.

During his time in Cleveland, Lue was praised for his ability to manage a locker room that included James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In Game 7 against the Warriors, Lue reportedly challenged James at halftime and ended up lighting a fire that propelled the Cavaliers to the championship.

Lue’s ability to deal with star egos isn’t just limited to his coaching tenure. During his playing days, Lue was a trusted teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers during a time when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant weren’t seeing eye to eye. He also played with Michael Jordan during Jordan’s Washington Wizard days.

Now, he’ll be tasked with breaking through and leading the Clippers to a place where no Clipper team has ever been before. He’ll be expected to finish what Rivers was unable to accomplish and guide the Clippers to an NBA championship.

For one, he’ll have to change the Clippers offensive attack. This past season, the Clippers relied too much on an isolation heavy offense centered around Leonard and George. That style of play failed in the playoffs when after failing to adjust, the Clippers kept taking tough shot after tough shot while the Nuggets continued to run their offense and get good shots.

With the Cavaliers, Lue showed his ability to adjust his offense and work to his player’s strengths. In the 2018 Playoffs, Lue employed a series of off-ball screens involving Love and Kyle Korver with James reading the defense and making the correct read to whoever was in the best position to score.

When playing with James, the offense sometimes tends to stagnate with the other four players standing around and waiting for James to make his move. Lue was able to get the other players to maintain focus and keep them engaged when James had the ball in his hands. Look for him to try and do something similar for when either Leonard or George has the ball in their hands.

He’s already got a player on the roster in Landry Shamet who can play that Korver role as the designated shooter on the floor running through off-ball screens and getting open. Both Leonard and George have become efficient enough playmakers to be able to find open shooters and cutters. That has to be Lue’s first task to tweak the offense to find ways to keep the rest of the team engaged and active when their star players are holding the ball.

The defensive end is going to be something he’ll need to adjust as well. The Clippers have some of the absolute best individual defensive players in the league. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, George was a finalist for the award in 2019 and Patrick Beverley is a perennial All-Defensive Team selection.

When the team was locked in defensively this season, there wasn’t a team in the league that could score on them. The problem for them was they seemingly couldn’t stay engaged on the defensive end consistently enough. The other issue was Rivers’ inability to adjust his defense to his opponent. Against the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic had a field day whenever Montrez Harrell was guarding him.

Lue’s primary task will be to get this team to maintain their defensive intensity throughout the season, as well as recognize what matchups are and aren’t working. Both Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green were more effective frontcourt defenders in the postseason than Harrell was. Look for Lue to play to his team’s strengths, as he always has, and to trot out a heavy dose of man-to-man defense.

Overall, Lue was the best hire available given the candidates. He’s got a strong rapport among star players. He’s made it to the finals multiple times and won a championship as a head coach. And he already has experience working with Leonard and George.

Given the potential free agent status of both Leonard and George in the near future, the Clippers have a relatively small window of championship contention. Lue was in a similar situation in Cleveland when James’ pending free agency in the summer of 2018 was also a factor. That time around, Lue delivered. He’ll be ready for this new challenge.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Third Scorer Is By Committee

The Los Angeles Lakers have a whole unit of third scoring options – and that’s why they’re one win from an NBA Championship.

David Yapkowitz

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One of the biggest questions surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers once the NBA bubble began was who was going to pick up the mantle of being the third scoring option.

Even before the 2019-20 season began, it was obvious that LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be the primary offensive weapons, but every elite team with championship aspirations needs another player or two they can rely on to contribute on the offensive end consistently.

The obvious choice was Kyle Kuzma. In his third year in the NBA, Kuzma was the lone member of the Lakers’ young core that hadn’t been shipped elsewhere. His name had come up in trade rumors as possibly being included in the package to New Orleans for Davis, but the Lakers were able to hang on to him. He put up 17.4 points per game over his first two seasons and had some questioning whether or not he had All-Star potential.

For the most part this season, he settled into that role for much of this season. With Davis in the fold and coming off the bench, his shot attempts dropped from 15.5 to 11.0, but he still managed to be the team’s third scorer with 12.8 points per game.

But here in the bubble, and especially in the playoffs, the Lakers’ role players have each taken turns in playing the supporting role to James and Davis. Everyone from Kuzma to Alex Caruso, to Dwight Howard, to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to Markieff Morris and even Rajon Rondo have had games where they’ve given the team that additional scoring boost.

Earlier in the bubble, James himself said they need Kuzma to be the team’s third-best player to win, but Kuzma himself believes that it’s always been by committee.

“We don’t have a third scorer, that’s not how our offense is built. Our offense is really AD and Bron, and everyone else plays team basketball,” Kuzma said on a postgame media call after Game 4 of the Finals. “We’ve had a long season, hopefully by now, you’ve seen how we play. Everyone steps up at different times, that’s what a team does.”

On this particular night, when the Miami HEAT got a pregame boost with the return of Bam Adebayo and wealth of confidence from their Game 3 win, it was Caldwell-Pope who stepped up and assumed the mantle of that third scoring option.

He finished Game 4 with 15 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. He also dished out five assists and grabbed three rebounds. Perhaps his most crucial moments of the game came late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers desperately clinging to a slim lead and the Heat not going away.

He hit a big three-pointer in front of the Miami bench with 2:58 to go in the game, and then followed that up with a drive the rim and finish on the very next possession to give the Lakers some breathing room.

Caldwell-Pope has been one of the most consistent Lakers this postseason and he’s been one of their most consistent three-point threats at 38.5 percent on 5.3 attempts. He was actually struggling a bit with his outside shot before this game, but he always stayed ready.

“My teammates lean on me to pick up the energy on the defensive end and also make shots on the offensive end…I stayed within a rhythm, within myself and just played,” Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “You’re not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow…Try to stay in the rhythm, that’s what I do. I try not to worry about it if I’m not getting shots. I know they are eventually going to come.”

Also giving the Lakers a big offensive boost in Game 4 was Caruso who had a couple of easy baskets at the rim and knocked down a three-pointer. He’s become one the Lakers best off the ball threats as well, making strong cuts to the rim or drifting to the open spot on the three-point line.

He’s had his share of games this postseason when it’s been his turn to step up as the Lakers additional scoring threat. During Game 4 against the Houston Rockets in the second round, Caruso dropped 16 points off the bench to help prevent the Rockets from tying the series up. In the closeout Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, he had 11 points and finished the game in crunch time.

For him, it’s about staying ready and knowing that the ball is eventually going to come to whoever is open. When that happens, it’s up to the role players to take that pressure off James and Davis.

“Our third star or best player is whoever has the open shot. We know what AD and LeBron are going to bring to the table every night. They’re going to get their attention, they’re going to get their shots,” Caruso said after the game.

“It’s just about being ready to shoot. We have two of the best passers in the game, if not the best, so we know when we are open, we are going to get the ball. We have to be ready to do our job as soon as the ball gets to us.”

And if the Lakers are to close out the series and win the 2020 NBA championship, head coach Frank Vogel knows that it’s going to take a collective effort from the rest of the team, the way they’ve been stepping up all postseason.

“We need everybody to participate and contribute, and we’re a team-first team,” Vogel said after the game. “Obviously we have our two big horses, but everybody’s got to contribute that’s out there.”

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NBA

NBA Daily: Alex Caruso: The Lakers’ Unsung Hero

The Los Angeles Lakers are two wins from an NBA championship and Alex Caruso is just happy to play his role and contribute.

David Yapkowitz

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Alex Caruso has technically been an NBA player for three years now, but this season is his first on a regular NBA contract.

After going undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2016, he began his professional career as with the Philadelphia 76ers in summer league. He managed to make it to training camp with the Oklahoma City Thunder but was eventually cut and acquired by their the G League team, the Blue.

In the summer of 2017, he joined the Los Angeles Lakers for summer league, and he’s stuck with the team ever since. A strong performance in Las Vegas earned him the opportunity to sign a two-way contract with the Lakers for the 2017-18 season, meaning he’d spend most of his time with the South Bay Lakers in the G League.

The Lakers re-signed him to another two-way contract before the 2018-19 season. Restricted to only 45 days with the Lakers under his two-way contracts, Caruso played in a total of 62 games over those two years.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2019 that the Lakers finally signed him to a standard NBA contract worth $5.5 million over two years. And he’s become a key player off the Lakers bench, especially in the playoffs.

Despite not getting much of an early opportunity, Caruso continued to put in the work in anticipation of when his number would finally be called. He always was confident that it would come.

“It’s been the story of my career, no matter what level I’m at, the more time I have on the court, the better I’ve gotten,” Caruso told reporters after the Lakers eliminated the Denver Nuggets. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity, I was two years on two-ways…finally I played well enough to get a contract, and over the course of the year it’s the same thing, anytime I can get out there on the court, I get better.”

Caruso’s stats may not jump off the page, he put up 5.5 points per game this season on only 41.2 percent shooting from the field, 33.3 percent from three-point range, 1.9 assists and 1.9 rebounds, but his impact has gone far beyond statistics.

His playoff numbers are up slightly at 6.8 points on 43.6 percent shooting to go along with 2.9 assists and 2.3 rebounds, but he’s become an invaluable member of the team’s postseason run. The defensive intensity and energy he brings to the court have been instrumental in playoff wins.

In this postseason alone, he’s seen himself matched up defensively with Damian Lillard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and one of the bubble’s breakout stars in Jamal Murray. Each time, he hasn’t backed down from the challenge and has even provided solid man to man defense on each of them.

“Looking and diving into the basketball aspect, series by series, just finding different ways that I know I can be effective, watching past games against opponents, just knowing their tendencies,” Caruso said on a recent media call. “The defense and the effort thing is something I’m always going to have. You can see that in the regular season when I might be more excited on a stop or defensive play on somebody than the rest of the team in game 45 or 50 in the season.”

While his main contributions have been his defense and his hustle, he’s found ways to be effective on the offensive end as well. While not shooting particularly well from three-point range percentage-wise in the playoffs at only 26.9 percent, he’s hit some timely ones during Laker runs to either pull closer to their opponent or to blow the game open.

He’s also been able to get the rim off drives and get himself to the free-throw line, and he’s made strong cuts off the ball to free himself up for easy layups. Playing with the second unit, he’s played a lot of off-ball with Rajon Rondo as the main facilitator, or with LeBron James as the only starter on the floor.

“For me, I think it’s about being aggressive. At any time I can put pressure on the paint whether it’s to get to the rim to finish or to draw fouls or make the defense collapse and get open shots for teammates, that’s really an added benefit for us to have multiple guys out on the court,” Caruso said.

“So whenever I’m out there with Rondo or with LeBron, to not have the sole focus be on one of them to create offense for everybody, it makes us a lot more balanced.”

The trust that Lakers head coach Frank Vogel and the rest of the team have in Caruso has been evident this whole postseason. Perhaps no bigger moment came for him than in Game 6 against the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals when Vogel left him on the court to close out the game.

He’s also become one of the team’s vocal leaders on the court during gameplay, on the sidelines in the huddle and the locker room. On a team with a lot of strong personalities, Caruso’s ascendance as a locker room leader is something that just comes naturally for him. It’s something he’s done his entire basketball career.

“Being vocal has always been easy for me. Outside of this team, I’ve usually been one of the leaders on the team, one of the best players on my team growing up at different levels of basketball. Being vocal is pretty natural for me,” Caruso said.

“I got the trust of my teammates, they understand what I’m talking about. I say what I need to say and it doesn’t fall on deaf ears. I’m really competitive and if there’s something I think needs to be said, I’m going to do it. I leave no stone unturned to get the job done.”

Now in the NBA Finals, as the Lakers seek to win their first championship since 2010 and No. 17 overall, Caruso has reprised his role as a defensive irritant and glue guy who makes winning plays. For the team to win this series, they need to continue to get timely contributions from him.

And with each step of the way, he’s just soaking it all up and is thrilled to be able to have this opportunity alongside some of the NBA’s best.

“It’s a journey I’ve been on my whole life just to get to this point. It’s really cool, I don’t know how to state it other than that,” Caruso said. “It’s just super cool for me to be able to have this experience. To play meaningful minutes and play well, and be on the court with LeBron in big-time moments.”

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