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NBA Daily: Raymond Felton’s Career Will End On His Own Terms

Spencer Davies speaks with longtime basketball veteran Raymond Felton about the ups and downs of his career, why he’s not done playing, the NBA bubble and more.

Spencer Davies

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For all of his life, Raymond Felton’s never been a tattoo guy.

Jermichael Wright, his best friend, makes a living in the world of ink design as an artist with his own shop.

Together at Latta High School in South Carolina, the two won back-to-back state championships in 2001 and 2002. With career averages of 39 points, 9.1 rebounds 8.9 assists and 5.6 steals per game, Felton led the Vikings to a 104-9 record over four seasons and earned the Naismith Prep award his senior year among future household names, including upstart junior LeBron James, before making a memorable run at the University of North Carolina.

But it wasn’t the accolades and personal accomplishments that stuck with Felton; it was the message he and Wright lived by that made it possible — GBMS, the very phrase the longtime NBA veteran had tattooed on his right arm this past year.

“It means God Bless My Success,” Felton told Basketball Insiders in an exclusive phone interview. “It’s an everyday thing for me. Every dang day.”

One week ago today marked a full year since Felton became a free agent. Following a two-season stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he didn’t end up signing with a team. It’s the first time that the recently-turned 36-year-old hasn’t played professionally since entering the Association in 2005.

That’s quite an adjustment for somebody who’s been around hoops his entire life; however, his everyday regimen hasn’t really changed. Felton is not done with the game yet. Still residing in Oklahoma City, he’s been training, staying in shape and, most importantly, maintaining a healthy diet as he gets older.

“It was tough, mentally, not being able to do something that you love to do and have a passion for,” Felton said of missing the action. “I love basketball. I’d do it even if I wasn’t getting paid to do it. But me, understanding that I’m 36 and getting towards the end of my career, I just didn’t want it to end like that. So that’s why I’m not retiring.

“I feel like I can still play. If I get to the point where I feel like I can’t move the way I used to, then that’s letting me know that it’s time for me to let it go. Even if I’ve got to go across the world, I’m going to play basketball for another two years to satisfy myself and how I want to end it.”

This past spring, erroneous reports surfaced that Felton was signing with Czech Republic Second Division club GBA Jindrichuv Hradec to continue his playing career. So what happened?

Felton spoke with a trainer for the team, who happens to be a friend of his from North Carolina. The trainer tried to persuade him to come overseas and join them for a tournament, so Felton did some research out of curiosity. It didn’t go far. He was offered money and had a conversation with the general manager of the club, but terms were never agreed upon, nor close to agreed upon. In fact, his agent didn’t even speak with the team’s management.

“I started getting all kinds of phone calls from people saying, ‘Hey man, you signed with the Czech Republic and you can’t even go to the Czech Republic,’” Felton said. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m at home. I’m not going anywhere.’ I don’t know. It was just a big mix-up with that.”

The closest Felton came to playing was last summer. He was working out with the Houston Rockets frequently and felt the organization would offer him a contract. They didn’t even invite him to training camp in the fall. Ideally, Felton would love to pick up where he left off in the NBA with a team that values his presence.

“I still feel like I’ve got a lot that I can offer, but you know how that goes sometimes in the league now. They want to go young. They want to do different things. It can be unfortunate sometimes.”

It’s not the first time that Felton’s been on the wrong side of lady luck. After four losing seasons with the then-named Charlotte Bobcats, the team made the playoffs and appeared to be set on a franchise turnaround; it didn’t work out the way he thought it would.

Felton went on to sign with the New York Knicks in the summer of 2010, a move that turned out to be outstanding for both the team and himself. Through 54 games, Felton was averaging career-bests in points (17.1), assists (9) and free throw percentage (86.7), all in over 38 minutes per contest.

Led by All-Star big man Amar’e Stoudemire, young talents like Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and promising rookies — Landry Fields and Timofey Mozgov — the Knicks were in the middle of the playoff pack with a 28-26 record and things were looking up in The Big Apple.

On the other hand, the organization had an opportunity to strike gold with a hometown superstar, Carmelo Anthony, aching to play for New York. The Knicks went with the latter option and made a blockbuster three-way trade to acquire ‘Melo from the Denver Nuggets. Felton, along with several key contributors and young talents, was made expendable. It’s a scenario that begs the question: “What if?”

“I’ve got the same question you got,” Felton chuckled. “’What if? What if y’all just waited?’ ‘Melo was gonna come anyway. He was gonna come anyway in free agency that summer. Just like…I don’t know man. To me, that team was special and I thought it could’ve been really special. I would like to have seen what we could’ve done, but that’s how the league goes sometimes.”

After finishing the year out with the Nuggets, Felton was dealt yet again to the Portland Trail Blazers, where he spent one short season thanks to a lockout. He returned to New York in the 2012 offseason via another trade and ultimately played with the man he was moved for. Under new head Mike Woodson and alongside new teammates, Felton was a part of the best Knicks team since the late ‘90s. Felton thought that group had a “big chance” at a title, and despite a series loss to the Indiana Pacers in the second round of the postseason, it was a great year.

Following his second go-round with New York, Felton bounced around with three teams over five years. When the Knicks sent him to the Dallas Mavericks in June 2014, an injury forced him out of the rotation his first season there. In spite of receiving DNPs for the first time in his career, he credits Rick Carlisle for being upfront with him about his initial role. Felton worked his tail off to earn a spot the next season and did so; he gave key performances for the team in the playoffs. Again, he assumed he’d sign back with the Mavericks when his contract expired, but it fell through the cracks.

So his next decision was signing with the Los Angeles Clippers to back up Chris Paul. It wasn’t a bad call, as Felton received over 20 minutes of playing time per night over 80 games (plus the playoffs). Even in his first season with the Oklahoma City Thunder the following year, Felton had a consistent role and appeared in every game. He re-signed with them two summers ago thinking he’d have the same duty. That didn’t happen.

“I had already signed back as a free agent,” Felton explained. “Then [OKC] made that trade later in the summer when they got rid of ‘Melo to go to Atlanta and then they got Dennis Schroder over there. Then they kinda just basically told me that they were gonna play him as the backup point guard. And it was just like, well, okay, kinda wish I would’ve known that going into free agency before I signed back.”

No hard feelings from Felton, though. He made great friends in his Thunder days and still keeps in touch with Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams and Schroder, the young guard that overtook his former role.

He’s learned the way the league works and the unlucky breaks that come with being a part of it, firmly believing that the ability to adapt is the only path to longevity.

It was as recent as the 2019 NBA Playoffs where Felton showed his abilities in spurts, most notably a quick stint in Game 4 between the Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers. He scored eight points in rapid fashion and ignited a run that spurred the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd into a frenzy, a moment he felt showed teams, and the world, that he hasn’t lost a step.

Felton isn’t lost of confidence, and he won’t ever be. He knows he can impact winning — shooting, defense, being a floor general — in whatever amount of minutes are given to him, as well as in a mentorship role.

“You get put in a situation where a lot of teams who are winning teams or are veteran teams that kinda already have their team set, and me going to a young team would basically be another coach, a player-coach. So you go into a situation like that and you already know you’re not gonna be playing ’cause they’re rebuilding. They’re trying to handle their young guys.

“And I’m to the point now where I just want to be around the game. I’m willing to do that. I’m willing to be a player-coach to help young guys and help them develop their skills and help them learn the game, mentally. Because pretty much everybody has the physical attributes, but a lot of them miss the mental part of it that’s really important about being an NBA player. So I’m willing to be able to help in that aspect and still just be ready if my number is called.”

If you’re expecting to see Felton in an NBA uniform anytime soon, it probably won’t be during the league’s restart this month. Like many, he has concerns with the bubble environment at the World of Disney in Orlando. From who he’s spoken to, there have been “iffy” feelings toward the plan itself. Between the surge of coronavirus cases in Florida and the fight against racial injustice and police brutality, Felton isn’t sure if the players will be there from a mental standpoint.

“I kinda wish they would’ve just like canceled the season, just really cancel it and just focus on the draft and focus on that upcoming season and just let this one go,” Felton said. “And I know it’s never been done; it’s been a long time since that ever happened, but it’s been a long time since the world’s been dealing with what we’ve been dealing with right now, too.

“Even the guys who feel the way I feel, we miss the game too. I miss it like crazy. I ain’t played in a whole year, so I would love to go play. I would love that, but not to risk getting sick or risk my life or risk something happening to my kids or my family. Nah, it’s just…not to finish a season. (If) we talkin’ about starting up a whole new season, then okay, that’s a different story. But to like finish and do this format that they’re trying out right now, nah. Not in my opinion. That’s my opinion, but not everybody feels that way, so.”

Despite his feelings on the comeback itself, Felton does feel his friends and players across the league will use their platform in a positive manner to affect change. He shared poignant thoughts on the issues happening in our country and our world.

“Anything can help at this point,” Felton said. “What we’re dealing with right now is just something that just needs to stop. It ain’t no racial thing. It ain’t no blacks against whites. It ain’t that. It’s just that these cops, these bad cops — ’cause not all cops are bad, I will say that; I have cop friends — but the ones who are doing something that other cops need to step up and make a stand and say, ‘Look, this is not how we’re supposed to do things.’ You know, you’re not supposed to put your knee down on that man’s neck for that long and they end up passing out and dying. You’re not supposed to shoot a man because they’re running away from you and you shoot ’em in their back. It’s just too many instances where these things are happening, and it’s just like, it’s got to stop.

“And I’m glad that everybody’s protesting and doing the things they’re doing because it’s like…these things are happening, but nobody’s doing nothing about it. It’s getting brushed up under the rug, and it’s like, no. Enough is enough. We tired. We done. We done with this. I shouldn’t have to answer a question to my son asking me like, ‘Daddy I’m scared. Daddy, I’m scared to be black.’ And it’s like, what? When I hear my kid say something like that, now I’m angry, now I’m mad. It’s just things that gotta stop man. We’re dealing with a lot in the world right now with the (coronavirus) and then all this stuff that’s going on with Black Lives Matter, too.

“It’s just tough times right now,” Felton continued. And I still feel like we’re all gonna get past this, we’re gonna get through this. Change is gonna happen because we’re gonna demand change. We’re gonna demand change. And then with the (coronavirus), it’s just something that we just gotta stay strong as a country and just wait this thing out, man. Just be safe and everybody keep practicing the things we need to practice — social distancing, hand sanitizer, keep your mask on, do the things you gotta do during these rough moments. It’s tough, man. These times like this, you just wanna be close to your family, close to your kids and just try to keep ’em safe. You know, it’s kinda hard to concentrate on basketball when there’s so much going on in the world that you can’t ignore.”

While Felton and Wright carry GBMS on in their respective lives, the two have envisioned starting up a clothing line together. Felton’s already got the shirts and sweatsuits, and people have always asked him about the apparel he wears. It’s a love that motivates him to go through with it down the line.

When asked about his future in basketball once his playing days are over, Felton seems unsure. He does know he wants to be around the game. Still, it’s not the time to talk about that right now. There’s unfinished business left to take care of in his eyes.

Felton’s path to this point has been filled with peaks and valleys. He’s had his fair share of moments at the top and at the bottom.

“I feel like you’ve got to make mistakes and do things in life in order to be a better person and learn how to be a better person and a better man in your life,” Felton said. “Whether it’s (as) a father, a husband or a teammate or a friend or a son or a whatever it is. You have to do some wrong in order to learn.

“So I don’t really know if I have too many regrets because I really can’t complain with my life. Yes, I’ve been through some things — I’ve been through some tough things off the court — but I’ve stayed focused, I’ve always kept God first and believed in God and believed that he’s gonna help me get through this. Mentally, physically, whatever. It’s always been that way. I’ve always gotten through everything that I’ve went through.”

Through it all, Felton wouldn’t change a thing about how he got here.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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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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