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Are The Bucks The New Magic?

There are certain qualities to this current Milwaukee Bucks team that remind Matt John of the Orlando Magic team that once was among the best of the best.

Matt John

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Almost to a fault at times, making a comparison is so easy when it comes to the NBA. Whether if it’s comparing teams or players, we always like to think someone or something reminds us of Team X or Player X.

This season is still in its infant stages, yet we’re already seeing reminded of us crews we’ve seen in previous years.

Take this year’s Golden State Warriors. Following their reign of dominance over the last several years, their best players are all so marred with injuries that their best course of action might just be to throw the season away in hopes of acquiring a high draft pick. That, then, could be following a path similar to the 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs.

Another example might be this year’s Chicago Bulls. We were so swept up in how promising the Bulls looked with their youth toward the end of last season that the overhyped was ultimately undeserved. The team currently stands at 2-6 and they haven’t exactly faced the toughest competition in that timespan. For contrast’s sake, Chicago may be a reincarnation of the 2015-16 Milwaukee Bucks.

Which brings us to the Bucks as they stand now. Milwaukee came into this season with many expecting them to be one of the better teams in the league. At 5-2, they look just about as good as advertised. The Bucks have an unstoppable, all-time player entering his prime, a brilliant coach and a bunch of players on the roster who, thanks to their shooting abilities, fit like a glove alongside their franchise player.

Let’s check that again and be a little more specific. They have a superstar player whose freakish abilities physically make him arguably the hardest player in the league to stop. Milwaukee has players that help their alpha dog because they can shoot the rock and a wisened coach who knows how to mix and match.

Sound familiar? It should because those were some of the exact components that made the Orlando Magic — way back when they were led by Dwight Howard — an elite franchise from 2008 to 2010.

Now, these two teams aren’t the exact same team detail-by-detail. In their primes, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Howard had some distinct differences between each other. Howard’s natural athleticism — combined with his overpowering strength — made him an all-around terror on both ends of the floor. In fact, when he was at the peak of his power, Howard may have been the most terrifying shot-blocker the NBA has ever seen.

Antetokounmpo, by contrast, is renowned more for his length, handle and speed, three advantages that Howard never really had. The Greek Freak’s long limbs and body control make him a matchup nightmare for opponents — whether if it’s in the half-court or on the fast break.

The overarching theme between the two future Hall of Famers is that their physical gifts allowed their respective franchises to max out the full roster’s potential. Thanks to that, there are several similarities between these current Bucks and those Magic teams from a decade ago.

The Play Styles

At the height of their playing abilities, Orlando lived and died at the three-point. Back then, detractors labeled that sort of playing style as “soft.” Nowadays, they should be revered for being ahead of their time.

Back in the 2008-09 season, Orlando took 26.2 threes per game which, at the time, seemed absurd when you compare them to their other elite competitors like the Boston Celtics (16.5, ranked 21st), Los Angeles Lakers (18.5, 15th) and Denver Nuggets (18, tied for 17th). That year, the Cleveland Cavaliers ranked fifth in three-point attempts a game, but they shot only 20.4 from distance.

Last season, only four teams took less three-point shots than the 2008-2009 Orlando Magic. But in 2008-09, only one team attempted more threes than the Magic. Yeah, the times have changed.

It was more of the same the following year, as the Magic led the league in three-point attempts with 27.3. Again, many scoffed at the idea of a team’s identity offensively centering so much on the three-ball. Now, you’re scoffed at if you don’t shoot enough from three-point land.

The offensive strategy could be boiled down to this: Surround Howard with floor spacers and playmakers that could let him do damage in the post. Back then, Howard was so imposing that opponents usually doubled him and left someone else open.

There was a good reason for this: From 2008 to 2010, the Magic had a wide array of dependable floor spacers to surround Dwight. Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Vince Carter, JJ Redick, Courtney Lee, Mickael Pietrus, Rafer Alston and Matt Barnes — all beyond capable three-point shooters. Over both years, they shot 38.1 and 37.5 percent from three, percentages that got them in the top ten league-wide.

It was an effective strategy that many believed wouldn’t work. Following the Warriors’ reign of terror, more teams than ever rely on shooting from the perimeter. It may have taken a few years, but the Bucks are following a similar pattern.

After adding players who turned out to be bad fits next to Antetokounmpo — Michael Carter-Williams, Greg Monroe, Matthew Dellavedova — the Bucks realized last summer that consistent shooting would help more than anything else. Since the summer of 2018, they’ve added Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, Nikola Mirotic (briefly), George Hill, Wes Matthews and Kyle Korver.

By adding this shooting, the Bucks’ offense not-so-coincidentally took off. Last season, they had the league’s fourth-highest offensive rating, scoring 113.8 points per 100 possessions. Part of their newfound success was the improved shooting as they took 38.2 three-pointers a game — with the much-needed bonus of extra room for Antetokounmpo to operate.

The Second-In-Command

When Howard started coming into his own around the end of 2007, the Magic knew he needed help around him for Orlando to take the next step. So, that summer, Otis Smith gave Rashard Lewis a near-max contract believing that he would be Dwight’s partner-in-crime.

Paying Lewis around $20 million seemed like an overpay for someone that had only made the All-Star Game once in his career, but it was a good addition in the prime of his career.

Lewis may not have been worth as much as Orlando was paying him, but he produced about as much as he could in a Magic uniform. His dead-eye shooting played a key role in the franchise making a surprise NBA Finals appearance in 2009, as he averaged 19 points on 45/39/78 splits. Those were good numbers, but were they numbers that of the second-best player on a championship-level team?

Whether it was or not, Lewis’ mysterious decline — or lack thereof — played a role in Orlando slipping in 2010 and taking a major step back the season after that. Lewis’ sharpshooting elevated the Magic to contender-status with Howard, but we were never sure if he was the best go-to guy next to your superstar.

Thusly, this brings us to Khris Middleton. Middleton has a very similar story to Lewis in regards to how he made it to the NBA. A second-round pick that gradually left his mark on basketball as he proved to be one of the league’s best shooters. But how he got paired with a titan for a teammate is a tad different.

While Lewis was brought in to be a dynamic duo with Howard via free agency, Middleton has been with Antetokounmpo from the beginning. In the six-plus years that they’ve been together, the two have had their highs and lows — eventually reaching where they are today: NBA contenders.

Giannis is now finally playing in an offense that helps him play to his full potential, while Middleton has established himself as a scoring threat thanks to his ability to shoot from just about anywhere.

The NBA has definitely taken notice of this. Middleton’s skill set earned him his first All-Star appearance. Middleton is the No. 2 option in Milwaukee for the same reason Lewis was in Orlando — he can shoot the rock. Now Lewis faced plenty of doubts surrounding if he could be the second guy on a title team, but he performed admirably in the role when the playoffs came. For Middleton though, he raised some red flags last year.

Overall, the two-way standout’s performance in the postseason wasn’t bad. He did his usual thing during the first two rounds, but it came against a team without their superstar (Detroit) and another that was already self-imploding (Boston). When the Bucks faced the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, Middleton couldn’t keep it up.

Outside of Game 5, Middleton’s production as a whole trailed off. He was barely a factor in any of the series, actually. Overall, he averaged 13.7 points on 41/34/55 splits, which are not acceptable for a guy who was playing 40-plus minutes a night.

While Middleton may not flame out as Lewis did, the question remains: Can a sharpshooter be your second-best player on a team looking to win it all?

The Lost Piece

Much has been said about how Milwaukee and Orlando were built around an all-time talent and a bunch of shooters — still, there is a little more nuance to it than that. Both franchises needed playmakers on their squads to get their offense rolling.

For the Magic, that member was Hedo Turkoglu, a savvy playmaker and shooter that had a reputation for coming through in the clutch. He wasn’t the best athlete, but he was unselfish and complemented Howard and Lewis as as much as he could.

Much like Lewis, Turkoglu played a pivotal role in getting the Magic to the NBA Finals. Averaging 16.8 points, 4.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds while putting up 43/39/82 splits would convince any team to re-sign him long-term, but Orlando didn’t see it that way. They sign-and-traded him to the Raptors for Vince Carter in hopes of replacing, or possibly upgrading, in the process.

What does this have to do with the Bucks now? If you haven’t guessed yet, Milwaukee ran into a similar predicament with Malcolm Brogdon. In Milwaukee, he was never a star, but he was the guy that the Bucks relied on to make the extra play because of his fundamentals — both as a passer and as a shooter.

He was excellent in the role that the Bucks gave him and, in fact, there were times where he played like the second fiddle to Antetokounmpo. His sturdy play in the postseason also made it easier to stomach Eric Bledsoe’s struggles. Surely, hanging onto would have been wise, but Brogdon wanted to be more than the third guard. Conversely, the Bucks had already invested in so much of their roster that paying top dollar for a sixth man seemed steep.

However, herein lies a key difference between the Bucks of today and the Magic of 2010. The Bucks have not acquired someone in hopes of replacing what Malcolm Brogdon brought to the table, unlike the Magic that believed Carter would do an admirable job filling in for Turkoglu.

Given how Turkoglu did after he left the Magic in 2009, you can see why they opted not to keep him. Not to take away from how amazingly Brogdon has done in Indiana — he’s been worth every penny — but his would-be role with Milwaukee didn’t match up with the money the young player desired.

Both Orlando and Milwaukee had those glue guys that kept the team afloat — but their departures, as sensible as they may have been, left a hole that became tough to smooth over. For the Bucks, that lingering issue has not yet resolved itself.

But the overarching debate to come from all of this is: Are these similarities a good or bad thing for Milwaukee?

Well, on one hand, Orlando never came away with a championship with the core that they had and that window was only two years long. On the other, a few unexpected twists changed their fortunes for the worse, like Jameer Nelson’s shoulder injury in 2009, Lewis mysteriously falling out of his prime at 30 and a few missed free throws altering the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals.

Milwaukee’s window finally opened last year and, for now, it’ll be open until at least 2021. If they want to keep it that way — Antetokounmpo’s status could change overnight without palpable results — they may have to ask themselves if the best route is to follow that of the 2008-10 Orlando Magic or to go another path.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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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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