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NBA AM: Does Kevin Love Have A Future In Cleveland?

Would losing Kevin Love to free agency be a bad thing in Cleveland?… C.J. McCollum is figuring things out in his sophomore season… Jameer Nelson is just trying to stay professional.

Steve Kyler

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No Love Lost?:  The elephant-in-the-room expression is about avoiding the obvious, with the notion that if there was an elephant in the room, everyone would see it so it’s unavoidable. In the case of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kevin Love is absolutely the elephant in the room, because as much as everyone in the equation has tried to say everything is OK, repeatedly throughout the season it’s been clear it’s not even close.

So let’s start from here. Kevin Love is having fun in Cleveland. He is winning games. He is seeing more national TV time and exposure than he ever saw in Minnesota even as a multi-time All-Star. His team is in the hunt for a championship. What’s not to like right?

The problem is Love isn’t even close to a meaningful part of the team. He has missed games to “rest,” he is often sat down in the fourth quarter because his defense is lackluster – to say it nicely. He is posting near career-lows in almost every category and his team has struggled to find a real full-time use for him. From time to time he’ll post a solid game, and the next day it’s a big deal and that should illustrate the magnitude of the problem.

Shouldn’t Love post 21-point, 14-rebound games every night? Isn’t that who Love is as a player?

On the season, Love has scored 20 or more points in 22 of 67 games. On the flip side, he’s scored 15 or fewer points in 28 games in the same span. To contrast those numbers to last season, Love scored 15 or fewer in just seven games last season and posted 20 or more points in 57 games, putting in 30 or more 25 times and 40 or more six times. He’s not getting anywhere close to those kinds of games in Cleveland.

So enters the elephant in the equation. Love is winning more games than he ever has in his career, but he’s not a critical factor to the process and that’s creating more and more doubt about his long term future in Cleveland.

Earlier in the season, in a calculated move, Love made a proclamation to the media that he would be staying in his current contract and staying in Cleveland. This was done despite the fact that he’d lose money staying his current deal or that his camp had already talked about what a new future long-term contract would need to look like before he was traded to the Cavaliers.

Love wanted the noise to stop, and making a proclamation such as he did was absolutely about trying to quell the rumors and in many ways it has, because when it starts to get loud, someone points back to the proclamation and the noise dies down.

The problem with the proclamation is it’s not binding, and as much as some want to make sound like he’s all the way in, Love is only all the way in until the end of the season. From there, things will take on a life of their own.

Love likes winning. He likes the bright lights that come along with being on a team poised for a championship. For the marriage to be longer than this season, a lot of things are going to have to be resolved. The biggest is finding a way to get Love back to being an All-Star-caliber guy, because as much as being on a winner matters to Love, being one of the primary guys on that team matters too and that’s where the elephant pokes his head into the equation.

It is far from decided what Love will do with his option. No one in the process believes he’ll stay in his current deal. There is a debate to be had on whether the Cavaliers should pony up the close to $100 million deal it will take to lock Love into the Cavaliers for the long-term. There is an even bigger debate on whether Love would sign on for four more years of “why doesn’t Kevin play?” questions.

Some will question the long-term wisdom of trading away Andrew Wiggins to land Love, especially if he walks away in July, but the truth of the matter is if the Cavaliers win a championship this year, it was a draft pick well spent, especially for a franchise that wants a championship more than almost anything.

Winning a championship might make everything that follows worth the trouble, even if that means Love walks to another team.

The Second Year Better Than The First:  When healthy, the Portland Trail Blazers are a stacked roster. The problem is they haven’t been healthy very much this season. For second year guard C.J. McCollum, things are becoming a little more predictable and that helping him find a rhythm to everything going on around him.

“It’s always a process,” McCollum said. “I’m in my second year now and I don’t even know if I’ve played 82 games yet in my career, but I’m learning everyday and just enjoying the process of being an NBA player.”

McCollum has played in more than 82 games in his two years, but not many more logging time in his 87th game this week. McCollum’s time on the floor has been up and down, as his team’s desire to compete for a championship often trumps McCollum’s need for floor time, but the big picture isn’t lost on the second-year player from Lehigh.

“It definitely gets easier as you get more time on the court and as you get further into your second season, it gets easier,” McCollum said. “You start to get used to the travel and knowing what time you get to go on the court and shoot. You try and do the same thing before every game and try to get your habits in place for the rest of your career.”

“I feel like I’m fitting in pretty well and feeling pretty comfortable off the bench. I think guys are pretty comfortable with me and where I’m going to be at. Obviously we have a lot of great players on this team so it’s easy to pick your spots and try to knock down open opportunities. But at the same time we have LaMarcus [Aldridge], Damian [Lillard], Nicolas [Batum] and a lot of other guys who can create and score for themselves so just doing the little things is what the team needs.”

McCollum and Lillard are often competing for the same minutes, which could breed frustration, but both understand how much they need each other. It helps that they’ve been friends since before their NBA days.

“I talk to Damian every day and we are pretty close,” McCollum said. “Our lockers are beside each other. We sit next to each other on the plane and stuff. I’m constantly picking at his brain to try and get better and trying to learn the different ins and outs of the NBA on and off the court. I think we are progressing well and as we continue to play alongside each other more and more, we will get more comfortable.”

The Trail Blazers have hit a rough spot in the season, having lost four straight games and five of their last 10. The bad news got worse on Friday when both Aldridge and Batum went down to injuries and their status for return is still very much up in the air.

If the playoff started today, the Blazers would have the fourth seed in the West. However, with 14 more games remaining on the schedule, the next three weeks could be tough and that’s not lost on McCollum either.

“I can’t look too far ahead,” McCollum said. “We just need to take this time and sharpen the tools in the shed to find a little rhythm before the playoffs and once that comes, I think it will take care of itself.”

If the postseason started today, the Blazers would match up against the L.A. Clippers and have home court in that series.

Trying To Be A Professional:  When it comes to Denver Nuggets guard Jameer Nelson, I am a little bit jaded. I have been with him his entire career, most of it spent in Orlando. We’ve talked more than 300 times and we’ve shared many locker room jokes and funny stories. Nelson is one of the genuinely good guys in the NBA and he is a heck of a teammate.

When Nelson left Orlando, many of the young guys in the Magic locker room felt like they’d lost a big brother and some were incredibly vocal about it, not understanding how any team could let a veteran like Nelson go.

In free agency, Nelson choose the Dallas Mavericks, feeling that situation gave him the best chance to chase a championship. But as happens a lot in the NBA when a players signs a low-dollar contract, they become the packing peanuts that make big trades happen. In Nelson’s case, he was sent with other assets to Boston in order to land Rajon Rondo in Dallas.

The Celtics in turn traded Nelson to the Nuggets. Nelson for the most part jokes about his situation, understanding that it’s the nature of the beast.

“It is part of the business,” Nelson said to Basketball Insiders. “You know when you sign up to be a professional athlete you always have a chance to get traded two, three, four or five times. The fortunate thing for me was that I was in one city for 10 years so it’s not like I’ve moved my entire career, it just happened this past year.”

Nelson has tried to stay in his routine as a means to adjust to the changes.

“It’s a little weird but when it boils down to it, it is just basketball,” Nelson said. “You try to fit in. You have to just be who you are because I’m never going to change who I am or what I do no matter who I’m playing for.”

“[Just] continuing to work by getting in the gym and lift weights and staying active. It’s easy to shut down and say I’m not ‘going to do this’ and do that, but we have guys on this team that try to get in the gym as much as possible because misery loves company.”

Nelson has the option to re-set the clock in many ways as his contract next season is a player option. While Nelson likes the situation he finds himself in with the Nuggets, he’s not sure what will happen this summer.

“I wouldn’t mind staying here,” Nelson said. “I’m not ready to make that decision just yet. I’ll make that decision with my agency and my family first and foremost when the time comes.”

The irony of Nelson’s situation is that the Nuggets actually drafted him back in 2004 and traded him to Orlando, where he spent the bulk of his career.

The Nuggets players and staff rave about Nelson as a leader, a teammate and a friend – something that’s not at all surprising for those of us that knew him in Orlando.

Nelson is the consummate glue guy that brings everyone to the center. It’s not a surprise that his team is having success. What Nelson is, is a big part of what Denver was missing.

Time will tell if Nelson stays in his $2.85 million player option. The smart money says he’ll be shopping for a new team, which would be his fifth team in 12 months.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA, @iamdpick, @jblancartenba, @johnzitzler, @CodyTaylorNBA, @MaryStevensNBA and @YannisNBA.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 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 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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