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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The 76ers’ Road Struggles

After dropping four straight away games last week, the Philadelphia 76ers fell to 9-19 on the road. The gargantuan split between that and their 25-2 home record leaves the door open for questions regarding their fit and playoff feasibility. Quinn Davis breaks down their entire road schedule so far to identify the changes that need to be made going forward.

Quinn Davis

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The Philadelphia 76ers are the NBA’s greatest enigma.

At home, the Sixers are a powerhouse. Their 25-2 record speaks for itself, but that number still fails to encapsulate their impressiveness in their own arena. The 20-point drubbings of the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the teams with the best record in each conference, add a little context. As does the 30-point rout against the Miami HEAT back in November.

Outside the Philadelphia city limits, though, the team has looked downright feeble. Their 9-19 road record, while fittingly bad, also lacks context. For that, look no further than the 30-point beatdown dished by the same HEAT team, or the 20-point waxing handed to them by the Boston Celtics.

To say the Sixers have been two different teams is an understatement. They have been playing two different sports.

How does this wide of a gap come to be? Is it simply an effort issue, as some believe, or is there something more going on here? To best answer that question, Basketball Insiders did a little research on all 28 of these road games, broken into stretches. The statistics are taken from the Cleaning the Glass game logs unless otherwise noted.

The First Two Weeks

Record: 3-3

For the first stretch of road games, the Sixers had moderate success. The started the season 3-0 on the road with wins over the lowly Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons, and then a wild win in Portland that saw them come back from down 21 late in the game.

They did lose Joel Embiid to a suspension and Ben Simmons to a shoulder injury in this stretch, so the ywent 0-3 to close out a west coast road trip against the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets.

Each of those games was hard-fought, however, and came down to the wire. The Sixers put themselves in a position to win against good opponents.

In summation, the first two weeks of road games went about as you would expect given the circumstances. The Sixers went 3-3 in this stretch, with four of those games and all three losses coming without one of their two best players. They probably should’ve lost in Portland, but it can be argued they should have won in Denver. The effort level in these games was not of much concern and there was no reason to set off any panic signal just yet.

The Rest of November

Record: 2-3, 5-6 overall

While the effort level may have sufficed over the first two weeks of road contests, it did not continue. The Sixers went down to Orlando after a two-game homestand and were trounced by the Magic 112-97. It is notable that this was the second night of a back-to-back and without Joel Embiid yet again, but that still does not excuse the low energy level that becomes clear on the stat sheet.

The Sixers only attempted 17 shots at the rim and 13 free throws in this game. You can credit the Magic defense for some of that, but a team with Ben Simmons and Al Horford playing should be able to carve out a little more space inside. They also rarely go out in transition in this game, something that should’ve been a priority with a Simmons-centric lineup. This can be chalked up as the team’s first truly worrisome road performance.

The Sixers then lost a very tight game on the road in overtime to the Oklahoma City Thunder. This was also the first game they lost on the season with the full starting lineup available. They followed that tight loss up by taking care of business against the Cavaliers in Cleveland.

The next road game came up north against the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors, who have had a lot of success defending the Sixers dating back to last season, shut them down again and most notably held Embiid scoreless.

Not only did the Raptors stifle Embiid, but they also kept the Sixers out of the paint and out of transition as a team. The Sixers were able to keep it close by going 15-for-38 on threes and outrebounding the Raptors by 11. The Sixers received a lot of criticism for this loss and rightfully so, but the Raptors’ defense also deserves credit here. This one should go in the outplayed by a good team column, rather than lack of effort.

The Sixers would close out their November road schedule by eking out a six-point over the New York Knicks. While the margin is concerning, a win is a win. The team imposed their will in that one, getting to the charity stripe for 40 attempts.

That brought the team to 5-6 on the road. A mediocre record for a team with title aspirations, but given the context of only two of those losses coming at full strength and only being truly blown out once at the hands of Orlando, it wasn’t so bad.

Onward to Christmas

Record: 2-2, 7-8 overall

The Sixers entered December looking like a pretty formidable team. Undefeated at home with some impressive beatdowns, they seemed like a tough out in the playoffs.

After a few more home wins, the Sixers took to the team bus once again, this time heading south down I-95 to Washington D.C. to play the Wizards, who were near the bottom of the East standings. The Sixers laid what was probably their second true egg of the season in this one, falling 119-113. They were without the services of Josh Richardson in this one, who had recently pulled his hamstring.

A sign of weak effort, the Sixers transition defense was horrid in this game. They allowed the Wizards to score 1.5 points per play after live rebounds. The Wizards shot eight more free throw attempts than the Sixers, nabbed five more offensive rebounds and won the turnover battle 21-11. All of that combined led to the Sixers dropping one to a weaker team while shooting 48 percent from three.

After this, the Sixers returned home for three more wins before heading up north to face the Celtics. Before this game, Embiid had a quiet night against the Nuggets, which prompted the ire of Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. The criticism seemed to light a fire, as Embiid dominated the Celtics in Boston, leading the Sixers to their best road win.

It wasn’t just Embiid who came to play. The Sixers, who were without Al Horford in this game, outrebounded the Celtics by 12, took four more free throws and only turned the ball over 11 times. They also shot 50 percent from three.

The three-point shooting is an outlier, but the rest of those statistics are replicable based on the personnel if the effort is there.

Two games later, the Sixers did not replicate that effort. They fell by 20 points in Brooklyn to the Nets, who were without Kyrie Irving. The Sixers were without Joel Embiid themselves and unable to get anything going offensively.

They only attempted 15 shots at the rim and 17 free throws, compared to the Nets’ 44 attempts and 18 free throws. They shot 5-for-26 from three as well, en route to an offensive rating of 87.8.

The Nets, starting a lineup featuring Taurean Prince as the nominal 4-man, outrebounded them by 13, which included 12 offensive rebounds. The effort culminated in the Sixers’ third true egg-lay of the season.

The Sixers went back out on the road right before Christmas to play the Pistons in Detroit and actually took care of business in this one. They dominated the glass, won the turnover battle and played solid transition defense.

Heading into the Christmas showdown with the Bucks, the Sixers were 7-8 on the road, with only one of those losses coming while at full strength. Three of the losses could be largely attributed to effort issues.

The Disney on Ice Trip From Hell

Record: 0-4, 7-12 overall

When Disney on Ice rolled into the Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia was feeling good about its basketball team. The Sixers had just dominated the best team in basketball on Christmas Day, putting the league on notice in regards to how good they could be.

Rather than feed off of the momentum from that win, the Sixers sputtered. At full strength, they could barely muster any offense against the Magic in Orlando. The effort statistics seemed to be there. The rebounding battle was tight, transition defense was not an issue and the Sixers attempted more free throws than the Magic. In this game, some bad shooting and a good Magic defense held them to 97 points in a one-point loss. The game ended with Horford missing an open three to win at the buzzer.

The very next night, the Sixers stayed in Florida to play the HEAT. The team lost another tight one, falling by one point in overtime. Similar to the Magic game, the Sixers rebounded well and attacked the paint, but were unable to seal the deal late. In fact, Tobias Harris missed a dunk late that would’ve put the Sixers up five. Embiid followed that miscue up by allowing himself to get stripped with the Sixers up three with less than 20 seconds left. The ensuing fastbreak led to a Tyler Herro three-pointer to tie the game.

With two winnable games lost, the Sixers marched on to Indiana for a New Year’s Eve Matinee and got roasted by the Pacers. Embiid missed this one, so the Sixers were once again not at full strength, but it was unlikely his presence would have made any difference. The Pacers shot 55 percent deep while the Sixers shot 15 percent. Perhaps the holiday had something to do with it, but this was another laid egg on the road.

After that beatdown, the Sixers headed to Houston where they were handled by the Rockets. They once again shot very poorly from three and had difficulty keeping the rockets out of the paint defensively. It wasn’t a debacle like the Pacers game, but it was the culmination of a four-game road losing streak that dropped the team to 7-12 on the road.

Embiid Injury to Present Day

Record: 2-7, 9-19 overall

After the four-game losing streak, the Sixers regrouped with a win at home over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but lost their star center to a dislocated finger. The Sixers would go 2-3 in their five road games without Embiid.

The first two of these came against the Mavericks and Pacers. The Mavericks made short work of the Sixers, just as they did in Philadelphia before Christmas. It’s safe to say the effort wasn’t there in this one. The Mavericks outrebounded the Sixers handily and got to the free-throw line at a much higher rate. The Sixers also shot 23 percent from deep compared to the Mavericks 40 percent.

Two days later in Indiana, the Sixers put forth a much better effort, but fell in a tight one to the Pacers. They actually had a lead in the fourth quarter but were unable to generate any offense down the stretch. They did do a solid job of defending and controlling the glass.

Almost a week later, the Sixers went back on the road for three straight games against the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors. The Sixers eked one out against the Knicks and then put together one of their best road efforts of the season against the Nets. The Sixers defense’ took over the game in that one, racking up steals down the stretch to seal a victory.

The last road game without Embiid came up in Toronto, where the Sixers ran into a tough Raptors team that controlled the paint. The Sixers took a ton of threes in this game and hit 40 percent of them, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of scoring around the basket.

The Sixers kept that game close for most of the contest and did a good job of getting out in transition. The Raptors just outplayed them in this one.

After this, the Sixers came home for a big win over the Lakers before heading back out on the road for their most recent four-game trip. The Sixers would be without Richardson for this trip, as he pulled his other hamstring a week earlier. Embiid would also be playing with a heavily taped left hand.

It started in Atlanta, where the Sixers were outrebounded by a very small Hawks team. They were also unable to guard Trae Young all night. This one could be attributed to lack of effort on the defensive end as the Hawks had their way with the Sixers interior.

After letting that one slip, the Sixers embarked on a brutal three-game stretch which just recently concluded against the Celtics, HEAT and Bucks. They lost all three.

In terms of effort, the games against Celtics and HEAT were sorely lacking. Both games were not close. The defense was especially bad in Miami, where the Sixers gave up 138 points per 100 possessions. In both the Celtics and HEAT games, the Sixers allowed those teams to control the paint and get to the free-throw line.

The game against the Bucks saw a much better defensive effort, but one that wasn’t good enough to overthrow the team with the league’s best record. The offense floundered in this one as the Sixers could not get into the paint yet again.

Now that we’re all caught up, here are the key takeaways from the road struggles.

The Sixers have played eight games on the road with their full starting lineup available, in those games, they are 4-4. Three of those losses came on the Disney on Ice road trip, and all of them were within one score late in the game except for the loss to the Rockets.

The road struggles truly became an issue post-Christmas, as the Sixers are 2-11 on the road since then. Before Christmas, the Sixers were 7-8 on the road and 4-1 when the full starting lineup played.

A lack of effort played a large role in at least seven of the losses. The first Magic game, the Wizards game, the first Nets game, the first Pacers game, the Mavericks game and the most recent Celtics and HEAT games. The rest of the games, the effort level was at least high enough to not show up on the stat sheet.

The Sixers as a team are shooting much better at home on the road, as most teams do. The issue is that when the shots are not falling, the defense seems to slip. The Sixers go from a league-best 101.9 defensive rating at home to a middling 110.8 on the road. The key for the Sixers going forward will be bringing their defensive mindset with them to other arenas.

Basketball Insiders asked head coach Brett Brown about this after a recent game at home against the Grizzlies.

“I think it’s human nature, sadly,” Brown said. “It’s the great challenge coaches go through, if teams always let their offense dictate their defense, it means they’re really not that good of a team and they’re not going to be playing that long. The connection is real and it’s a human nature thing. It’s easier to play defense when you’re happy and scoring, and it’s tougher when you’re grinding it out. But grinding things out equals May and June. That’s the miss that I am on as it relates to stuff going on on the road with us.”

Brown is right, the offense will only become more of a grind as the playoffs begin. If this team has any chance of advancing into June, they will need to commit to the defensive end even when the offense isn’t working.

Basketball Insiders asked Horford the same question.

“Coach has talked about that. He’s told us that, regardless of how it’s going, we need to have that defensive mindset and that toughness to stay together,” Horford noted. “At times we haven’t been as consistent as we need to, but earlier in the year, I thought we were really, really good at that. It’s something that we need to continue to do regardless of whether shots are going in or not, we have to defend and rebound.”

Horford’s comment about the Sixers being better at that earlier in the year lines up with the numbers. As mentioned, the road struggles really became jarring after Christmas.

Given the record with the full roster, it may be too early to sound the panic button just yet. If the team continues to lack a defensive edge on the road, though, Philadelphia could be staring down the barrel of a first-round exit.

If this group is able to make the mental changes required to become as good defensively on the road as they are at home, then all the talk of the Sixers being built for the playoffs may come to fruition.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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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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