The final chapter of the famous Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics rivalry featured LeBron James and Anthony Davis on one side versus Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on the other. However, the visiting Lakers managed to win 96-95 on Saturday, largely thanks to the hustle and bustle of one RPG player, Alex Caruso.
“One of the best defensive games of the year,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel after Caruso saved LA by missing a golden chance for the Celtics.
Caruso was stationed on the wing beyond the 3-point line when Kemba Walker was credited with a block against Davis 10.8 seconds left, who knocked the ball away from the tall man as Davis got on the trail.
Walker’s distraction caused Davis to hit the ball in the air as he tried to regain it, but Walker corrected it first, giving the Celtics a chance at a quick break to win the game.
Before Walker even took possession of the ball, Caruso turned his body to face the basket at the far end of the court. As soon as Walker started pushing the ball forward and passing it to a grazing Brown, Caruso fell back into a dead sprint on defense.
“As soon as the ball appeared in the air, regardless of whether we got it back or not, I somehow went back on the defensive just because we taught ourselves,” Caruso said afterwards.
Caruso overtook Brown up to halfway where Walker’s push-ahead pass was directed and got a hand on the ball before Brown could.
This defensive kick not only triggered an undisputed starting shot for Brown, but when Brown gained possession, Davis and Dennis Schroder were also able to return to the defensive.
“Every time you have sales, all you want to do is give a quick jump to come back and get the game back. That’s exactly what we did,” said James. “It started when AC came back and we all formed some kind of wall.”
Brown worked the ball around, and Walker had no choice but to do a 12-foot pull-up. After Schroder Walker had suffocated in defense, the shot missed by 2.7 seconds. Daniel Theis’s putback attempt with 0.5 seconds left also fell off the sidelines, and L.A. held on to win.
Caruso said he initially played a defensive game, “expecting the worst, hoping we’d get the ball back and get a shot” but it worked out far better.
“Just being in the right place at the right time,” he said.
It’s Caruso pieces that have earned him time as part of the Lakers’ final line-up. On a night when Vogel cut his rotation from eleven to nine and Markieff Morris and Wesley Matthews sat on the bench for the entire game, the coach retained his confidence in Caruso.
“It’s part of the identity of ‘play harder than your opponent’,” said Vogel. “Whose team defends harder. Whose team runs offensively on the ground. Who sprints back harder defensively. The attitude sprint versus jogging.”
The fourth-year guard who never quit college and was once a G League regular is the ninth highest paid Laker, making $ 2.75 million this season. But Caruso has proven itself when the game is at stake.
“He’s a smart player,” said Davis. “He’s not the highest paid or [doesn’t] all have awards or credentials. Many people do not notice him. But he’s playing right. He blocks himself defensively, makes hard shots, scratchy. “
While Caruso only had two points, three rebounds and one assist on Saturday, his plus-minus was the team’s best plus-14 in 20 minutes.
Davis said Jared Dudley advised him after L.A.’s loss to the Detroit Pistons on Thursday that Caruso has been plus-minus of plus-29 in his five losses and has not been minus in any of those games.
“I’m a very, very competitive guy and it comes down to the most important thing at the end of the game,” said Caruso. “So I don’t really care about the start, points and stats. I care a lot about winning. The fourth quarter, the end of the game, is the time of winning.
“A lot of times when I get out of timeouts I just say, ‘It gains time.’ I’m going to go to a player, say it out loud. Let everyone lock in and everyone know what’s going on. For me, that’s my favorite part of the game. “