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NBA Sunday: Kobe Bryant’s Inner Peace

For the first time in his 20 year career, Kobe Bryant is finally at peace, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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There are players who come along but once every so often: Tim Duncan and LeBron James are among them, and maybe, if he’s lucky, Kevin Durant can one day be listed in that class.

In the summer of 1996, Jerry West was fortunate enough—or, depending on how you look at it, smart enough—to get his hands on one such player: Kobe Bryant.

KobeBryantInsideImage1A full 20 years later, as Bryant is wrapping up a career with accolades a bit too numerous to list, he does so after putting forth arguably the greatest career that a generation of NBA fans have witnessed to date. And when he looks back at his storied career, yes, he may have done things a little differently. He may have tried to better understand, earlier, that winning basketball is not all about what transpires between the lines on the basketball court, but that it is just as much about what transpires between one’s ears. And yes, he may have tried harder to work things out with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. But that’s all water under the bridge now.

For the first time ever, for Bryant, this journey isn’t about the intended destination and it isn’t about him chasing his legacy; it’s simply about the journey itself.

For Bryant, the meeker, happier and softer version of himself—for the first time ever—winning is not the priority.

Finally, after all these years, after all the injuries, heartache, late nights and early mornings, the once maniacal Bryant is truly at peace with the game of basketball.

* * * * *

About three weeks before Kobe Bryant told the world that he planned on retiring at the end of the 2015-16 NBA season, I knew that the announcement was forthcoming. And no, I didn’t know because of any sort of sourced information. I knew simply because I know a thing or two about the competitive fire of a professional athlete.

The winless Lakers visited New York City on November 6 after losing their first four games. At Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, Bryant played in that building for the first time since the disastrous 2012-13 season.

In that game back in the 2012-13 campaign, Bryant gave us one of the final highlight reel worthy plays of his career. During the game, due to injury, he lost Pau Gasol. After it, though, is when he seemed to have permanently lost Dwight Howard.

Bryant had just put together an impressive-enough game against the Nets on that night in 2013, including the aforementioned dunk that few thought the 34-year-old could still muster. But after the Lakers pulled out the win that they needed, Bryant spent just as much time discussing the absence of Howard. The center was unable to suit up against the Nets due to a few injuries that he was nursing, mainly a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

Throughout that disappointing season, Bryant seldom smiled. He also seemed to take just about every opportunity to publicly chastise Howard. Deep down, Bryant was disappointed that the heir apparent to his throne atop the Lakers kingdom seemed unworthy. Still pursuing his own greatness and cementing his legacy, Bryant selfishly prodded Howard.

“I don’t think he’s ever had to play through injuries his entire career,” Bryant famously said of the rehabilitating Howard during the season each of the two would like to forget.

“It’s a new experience for him,” Bryant said, intimating that Howard wasn’t tough.

Two nights later, when the Lakers traveled to Boston to battle the Celtics, Howard fired back.

Paul Pierce dominated the Lakers that night, sending the team to a 23-27 record after the Celtics embarrassed the Lakers in a nationally televised contest to the tune of a 21-point beating.

That night in Boston, I’ll always remember how members of the East Coast media were stuffed into the visiting locker room in TD Garden waiting for Howard and Bryant to address us. Howard was passive and dismissive of everyone, including Bryant, while Kobe tried his best to downplay the extent to which he had challenged and questioned Howard.

That night, as I walked out of TD Garden, I remembered thinking that the frustration had gotten the best of each of the two, and that their partnership was on the brink of a collapse. Months later, after the Spurs had ended the Lakers’ season, it came as no surprise to learn that Howard had opted to take his talents to Houston.

During my years of covering the NBA, I saw more of the Lakers that season than I had any other, spending the better part of two of their East road trips following the team and following their progress closely from afar. That, after all, was the team that many, including myself, thought was capable of approaching 70 wins. That capability is something that Bryant and I agreed on.

Still searching for glory, it is those expectations that would help to eventually drive Howard away. Those expectations are now a distant memory, and it is that knowledge—and peace with that reality—that has helped Bryant warm to the idea of riding off into the sunset.

As an East Coast NBA columnist, I have had the opportunity to spend a large part of the past 13 years chasing LeBron James around. Kobe Bryant, for me, at least, has always been a bit more an enigma. I recently tweeted that one of the cruelest things that the basketball Gods have done was not allow Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony to end up spending their prime years together. But one thing that was even worse than that was not ever giving us LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals.

If you think long enough, you will easily recall that this is what we were supposed to have back in 2013. The Miami HEAT had just captured their first NBA Championship under James and were looking toward repeating, but with Steve Nash, Antawn Jamison and Howard having been added to the existing core of the Lakers that featured Bryant, Gasol and Metta World Peace, there were many—including myself—that strongly believed the Lakers would sit atop the Western Conference that year.

Unfortunately, infighting, injuries and chemistry issues undercut all of that, with the lowest point of the season coming when Bryant suffered his career-altering ruptured Achilles tendon in the third-to-last game of the regular season.

In the end, the Lakers would clinch their token playoff spot on the final day of the regular season, end up with a 45-37 record and a sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.

Since then, neither Bryant nor the Lakers have been the same.

The Lakers for the worse, but Bryant, perhaps, for the better.

* * * * *

It’s a fairly brisk evening in January 2016. By this point, Bryant has put to rest the questions surrounding his ability to play the game.

Long gone are Phil Jackson, Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni. Dwight Howard is in Houston, Pau Gasol is in Chicago and Bryant looks around at a locker room featuring the future of the franchise. As Julius Randle works out on the floor before tip-off, the shirtless Bryant receives treatment on his ailing shoulder. He pops in and out of the locker room with an ice-pack bandaged on it, stopping to briefly converse with members of the media and the team’s public relations staff.

Even after the Lakers lose a game that will ultimately go down as meaningless, in terms of demeanor, Bryant seems truly happy and upbeat. Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder are visiting and the nationally televised game, Bryant knows, is the final time he will host Durant and Russell Westbrook in his building.

Neither before nor after the game would you know that Bryant’s Lakers were closer to the bottom of the league than the top.

In fact, 2013 may have been just three years ago, but in basketball years—and for Kobe Bryant—it seems like a lifetime ago.

“Yea, of course it does,” Bryant says when asked whether the losses still matter to him.

KobeBryantInsideOnly2“I just hide it a lot better now,” he says with a chuckle.

And in that moment, Bryant gave a glimpse into the relationships that he has fractured over the years, mainly with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard.

“It’s tougher when you have a championship team,” he said. “You’re playing for a championship level when you have championship talent. It pisses you a lot off a lot more when you’re not playing up to that level of potential.”

Potential is a word that has become synonymous with these Lakers, who will enter play on January 11 at 8-30. But a championship is seemingly as far away as Bryant’s rookie season.

“I think the team we have now, we’re playing hard,” Bryant said with a nod and a somewhat proud tone.

And alas, he declared the war to be over.

Bryant being satisfied with his team merely playing hard is conclusive evidence that the battle that he waged with his inner demons—the battle to win at all costs—was finally over. It’s something that he knew long before he announced it to the world back in November, but still, for me, it is something that was quite profound. It was the first time I’d heard Bryant make such an admission with my own ears.

Wiser and more mature, Bryant extols the virtues of Russell Westbrook and Julius Randle and, yet again, takes an opportunity to remind everyone of his age.

“I’m from the generation that didn’t learn how to flop,” he said in response to a question posed to him about teammate Lou Williams. And as he chuckled and answered every question posed to him, openly, honestly and loosely, I couldn’t help but to walk away smiling.

For the first time ever, I was able to witness Kobe Bryant at peace.

And with the Lakers rolling along to the finish line of the 2015-16 season—Bryant’s 20th wearing Lakers purple and gold—the fight was over, the chase had ceased and, it was quite obvious, that the competitive fire had been extinguished.

Since entering the league back in 1996, Bryant has been pursuing greatness. The chase may have cost him a lot—relationships, health and sleep, to name a few.

But as he takes one final lap around the NBA, going out on his own terms and, for once, enjoying the journey itself more than its intended destination, it’s pretty obvious that Bryant is fully at peace with himself.

Had he found a way to patch things up with Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal, who knows what could have transpired. After winning three of the four NBA Finals they competed in during the 2000-04 seasons, the team seemed only tweaks away from returning to the Finals in 2005.

But had he patched things up and had he remained beneath the massive shadow cast by O’Neal, would Bryant ever have been considered one of the greatest?

A long time ago, the roads diverged. Bryant took the one less traveled. And now, finally, almost 12 years after his famous divorce with O’Neal—after he dedicated his life to proving that he could succeed without the ‘Big Aristotle’—Bryant has finally found his inner peace.

Patient, poised and relaxed, Bryant now appreciates the smaller things about the game. The camaraderie, the preparation and the roars of the crowd. As he drifts off into the sunset and leaves the franchise he has grown to love in the capable hands of a talented young nucleus, on this brisk January evening in 2016, after 20 years, it is obvious that Bryant has found his inner peace.

Better late than never, I suppose.

And in the end, based on how things have transpired, I’m willing to bet that Kobe Bryant wouldn’t change a single thing.

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Georgetown Prospect Omer Yurtseven is Ready for Center Stage

Omer Yurtseven spoke with Drew Maresca about playing for coach Patrick Ewing, training for the NBA during a pandemic and why he feels he’s the best center in the 2020 draft class.

Drew Maresca

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Omer Yurtseven, the 7-foot tall, Georgetown center, posted an impressive junior season in 2019-20; he averaged 15.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. With legitimate NBA size and skills, it’s no mystery why he’s confident. “I don’t think anyone has my combination of tools and versatility,” Yurtseven recently told Basketball insiders. But he’s also a student of the game –well aware of the game’s history and where it’s headed.

“I wouldn’t put anyone ahead of me. I haven’t seen anyone with the tools that I have. I can shoot the ball, the three-ball, and that’s where the big man is headed,” Yurtseven said.

But he’s not satisfied with what he’s accomplished thus far. He wants more. And he understands that he’ll have to continue working to ensure his spot in the league.

“Some guys might be more athletic [than me], but there are a lot of athletic bigs in the league who don’t stick,” Yurtseven continued. “The skillset is just as important, if not more. So is the [willingness to put in] the work. I think I’m better or as good as any other players, and my rookie year, that’s my goal, to prove that.”

Yurtseven transferred to Georgetown from N.C. State in 2018 after a successful Sophomore season in which he shot over 50 percent on three-point attempts. He sat out the 2018-19 season voluntarily to play for Georgetown and coach Patrick Ewing. The opportunity to work with the Hall of Famer was too good to pass up.

“That’s what I was looking for coming in [working with Ewing]. I needed someone to see the game from my perspective,” Yurtseven said. “I was looking for that feedback and I demanded to be coached. I wanted to learn from him. The thing he stayed on me the most about was the pace of the game and how quick my moves would have to be at the next level.

“The turnaround jumper was one of his major weapons,” Yurtseven continued. “He was ahead of his time, but he wanted to see me do the same thing and give 100 percent effort every time.”

Yurtseven jumper is a major weapon in his arsenal, so a pairing with Ewing was an obvious fit. His numbers remained strong during his junior year season with Georgetown, but with one glaring drop off – three-point percentage. Ewing demanded that Yurtseven operate from the low post, a role that the prospect didn’t love, but accepted. Could a new role be to blame for a down shooting year? Yurtseven would never blame anyone other than himself, especially not Ewing. But it’s clear that he felt like he could have done even more if given the opportunity.

“The biggest thing is, I played how I played because that was the role demanded of me. All I had to do was be the inside presence, the defense collapser, and we had to stick to the strategy that coach thought was best for the team.

“I would love to have caught the ball at the top a little more,” Yurtseven continued. “But I was happy to be the post guy. I knew I had to get into my moves quick, so that’s what I did. I sacrificed what I think is my best skills for the team, and I was fine with it.”

It’s evident that Yurtseven is a team-first guy but his three-point shooting took a significant hit. As mentioned above, Yurtseven shot 50 percent on 1.3 three-point attempts as a sophomore in 2017-18, but only 21.4 percent on only half an attempt from long range per game in 2019-20. However, it’s not in his nature to look back – only ahead.

“That’s been my main focus,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “In April, I was shooting 30 or 40 percent two steps behind the college three. That percentage has added up 5 or 10 percent each month. Doing it isn’t easy, but it pays off and that’s why we do it. Now I’m at 75 or 80 percent (in practice sessions) and I’m really confident in my ability.

“And that’s the most important skill set for big men right now,” Yurtseven said. “You’ve got to be a perimeter shooter, as well as a perimeter defender, because big men are evolving away from the rim.”

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yurtseven – and all of the 2020 class – received longer than normal between the end of the 2019-20 NCAA season and the 2020 NBA Draft. And while mock drafts have slowly whittled down the number of prospects, Yurtseven is working tirelessly to improve his stock in any way possible. impressive game.

“No one knew this offseason would be so long. It’s been 6, 8 months already,” Yurtseven continued. “But the team around me has been a blessing – coordinating workouts and making sure I’m taking steps to improve, from nutrition to training lateral quickness to shooting.

“It’s speed and agility, studying the game and having the knowledge about how to position yourself,” Yurtseven continued. “It’s timing and positioning and footwork. It’s all pieces of the puzzle. But the league is another level than college. That’s why I’ve been preparing, increasing lateral quickness, strengthening my glutes, making sure my quads and hips are firing well and that my lateral push-off is explosive as I want.”

“And seeing it translate on the court in two-on-twos and three-on-threes. Switching on guards and providing I can do it to myself. It’s been really fun and fulfilling.”

Yurtseven could have opted to play professionally in Europe – he had numerous professional offers as an 18-year-old prior to coming to joining N.C. State. But Yurtseven is driven by more than money and fame. He is family-oriented and understands the long game. His parents wanted him to receive a college degree before pursuing basketball – a decision that Yurtseven is happy to have made.

“The education was the main reason [I chose to play in the NCAA]. My family’s dream was that I get a college degree.

“When I was 18, [Turkish teams] offered me a huge contract. I’ve never seen so many zeros in my life,” Yurtseven continued.

“Now it’s time to chase my dream. And my team, my circle, it’s our goal to find a franchise that allows me to grow into a player for 10-plus years – and I’ll never stop working at it.”

Where Yurtseven ultimately plays is anyone’s guess – but he’s already spoken with 17 NBA teams.

Whatever franchise selects the center will add a hard-working and versatile big man that looks well-suited for the modern game – or he may not be selected at all.  Yurtseven is currently ranked outside the top 50 according to some mocks – but if he gets an opportunity, he knows how he’d like to play.

“My aim is to get a double-double, year one,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “And, of course, guarding 1 through 5 is another big thing that coaches are looking for. Look at the Bucks, they were ranked first in offense (in 2019-20). Most of their points come from spot-ups. Defenses collapse on Giannis and Middleton – and Brook Lopez stays alone in the corner. I think that’ll be where I get my shots, too.”

Only three rookies in the past 10 years have averaged a double-double in their first season in the league – Blake Griffin, Karl-Anthony Towns, Deandre Ayton. That’s an elite club in which Yurtseven is seeking membership. Can he surprise the basketball world? Only time will tell.

There isn’t much data on him against elite big men. But there is one relevant contest worth examining: a Nov. 22 matchup against Duke and Vernon Carey, who is projected to be drafted No. 26 overall by Basketball Insiders.

Carey filled the stat sheet with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but so did Yurtseven (21 points, five rebounds and four blocks). That night, his entire repertoire was on full display – decisive drop steps, smooth turnaround jump shots over both shoulders, baby hooks, midrange jumpers and hard-nosed defense.

“He was the only true big man that I played against,” Yurtseven recalled. “He was quick and Duke did a good job putting the ball in his hands as soon as he stepped in the paint. I had to exert a lot of energy keeping him off his spot, but I adjusted quickly.

“I figured he would be very strong, but he ultimately didn’t feel as strong as I expected. My maturity and strength helped me a lot.”

Yurtseven’s skill and build render him tailor-made for the NBA. But for most, sticking at the professional peak is about more than skill and body. IQ, on and off of the floor, play a major role, too.

“A lot of guys [in this draft class] haven’t played many games,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “Having a college degree and that experience is a huge tool.

“Playing overseas as a pro is another layer of experience that I have compared to these guys. My IQ has improved. Those one-and-done guys are gonna be thrown into the fire, but I’ll be more ready.

“I saw a study,” Yurtseven explained. “Guys that come in 21-and-under stay in the league two or three years on average. Guys that come in and are 21-or-older stay seven or eight years on average. That just shows how much time it takes to mature your game.”

Comparatively, only four players were 22 or older as on draft night in 2019 – Yurtsevein is 22.

At the end of the day, it will be about how he performs on the court, and he’s comfortable with that.

“If I get drafted, I’ll be the first guy coming out of Turkey with a college degree,” Yurtseven said proudly.

“I’m ready for the next step. I appreciate everyone wishing me luck and supporting me from afar. I can’t wait to show my game’s evolution and reap the benefits of all of the work I’ve put in.”

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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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