Alex Caruso sat inside an auxiliary room, an enclosed rectangle dubbed “the penalty box” by some NBA staffers. He had an ice pack on each knee, and as he looked at his phone he jokingly moped about missing the first bus back to the Lakers’ hotel.
Later Sunday night across the hall in a practice gymnasium, Anthony Davis would sit and answer questions about the biggest shot of his life, the open three-pointer from the wing that beat the buzzer and the Nuggets in one swish, giving the Lakers five chances to win two games on the way to the NBA Finals.
It easily could’ve been Caruso in that room, sitting in front of everyone while LeBron James hung out stage right, sending out tweets talking about how clutch you came up.
But Caruso’s shot late in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals was just a little short. Maybe a hair left.
That it didn’t go in? That doesn’t matter. That Caruso, in his first NBA season without any two-way caveats, played more hellacious defense and, when the moment called, he called for the ball and took it?
That’s what matters.
“To be honest,” James said, “when he makes shots, it’s extra credit.”
Long before the Lakers got to the bubble, it was clear how important Caruso had become.
In the 18.4 minutes per game he played in the regular season, the Lakers were 9.8 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents. That was best on the team, better than James (8.5) and Davis (8.5).
And in the playoffs, the Lakers’ best defensive lineups largely have been with Caruso on the court, with only Markieff Morris having a better individual defensive rating.
“We know what we’re going to get out of him every night,” James said. “It’s not about him making shots. We know he’s going to defend and he’s going to play at a level that he’s capable of playing at, and we all know that once he checks into the game every single night. We know what to expect out of him.”
But with no Laker girls, kiss cams or celebrities in the stands, it’s clearer to see what else the Lakers have come to expect from Caruso.
Before he even checked into Sunday’s 105-103 win, Caruso was the loudest voice in an early timeout, explaining defensive coverages and encouraging the team to play with energy.
On the floor, he rarely stops talking, screaming, “We need one,” at his teammates for a stop on the final defensive possession of the third quarter. (They got it).
A year and a half ago, Caruso was still finding his place in the league, a fortunate bystander on the court the night James passed Michael Jordan on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. His interaction with James after the bucket became an instant meme, with people dubbing in a voice as if it was Caruso introducing himself to James for the first time.
That night he told The Times, “There’s not a day where I’m like, ‘I can’t actually play in the NBA.’ ”
He’s proved himself right.
Rajon Rondo said he’s always believed Caruso has been a high IQ player and watching him run through a gantlet of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and, now, Jamal Murray has only proved his toughness.
“He knows what he’s talking about,” Rondo said, high praise from someone with one of basketball’s most-respected minds.
With the Lakers up 2-0, Caruso’s become an integral leader to go along with being a key rotation player for a team that looks destined for a NBA championship. He’s not backing down and he’s not keeping quiet.
“I’ve always kind of been like that. Being vocal has always been easy for me. It’s kind of come natural,” he said. “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, different levels of basketball. Being vocal is pretty natural for me. And I’ve got the trust of my teammates that they understand what I’m talking about and I can say what I need to say.
“… I’m really competitive, man. If there’s something that needs to be said to win, I’m going to do it.”