Lakers’ third-wheel option: His name is Kyle Kuzma

The Los Angeles Lakers have been the dominant team in the Western Conference all season. A four-month hiatus due to the Coronavirus pandemic has put some rust in the Lakers’ armor. After dropping their last three games, and losing four of their first six games playing in the bubble format under the NBA restart, the Lakers were a bit thirsty for a victory against the Denver Nuggets.

Kyle Kuzma delivered it for them. Kuzma’s 3-point dagger with 0.7 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter made that a reality for the Lakers as Los Angeles handed the Nuggets a 124-121 defeat.

“It’s important to have a third target out there,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said after the game. “Some of our sets we may go to in that situation we may not want to show in a game like this and hold for the playoffs. But Kuz is going to be an option in those situations. He executed the play really well. LeBron (James) made a great pass to A.D. (Anthony Davis), and A.D. made a great read, and obviously, if they overcommit to Kuz on the backscreen, LeBron is open at the rim. Kuz is showing he can make that shot. He knocked down a big shot and won the game for us.”

It was a good win for the Lakers. But it also should give Los Angeles pause. Take away Kuzma’s game-winner and the Lakers very well could have easily been handed a fourth straight defeat, which would not have been a good thing with the postseason around the corner.

Asked if the Lakers were playoff-ready on a scale of 1-to-10, James said the team isn’t quite operating at peak efficiency…yet.

Kyle Kuzma Lakers Media Day
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Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma is expected to do big things alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. File Photo/Dennis JFreeman for News4usonline

“I don’t think that we’re a 10 and we shouldn’t be a 10 because it’s a different type of preparation that goes into a playoff game. James said after scoring 29 points and producing a dozen assists in the win against the Nuggets. “You spend hours and hours on teams because you know you’re going to be locked in with them for at least four games. Throughout the regular season and throughout these eight games you really just have maybe a day, maybe not even a full day…just kind of locked in on the other team, and then you start preparing for the next team.”

James said he doesn’t even consider himself to be playoff ready.

“Me personally, as far as mentally, I’m not in playoff mode,” James said. “Physically, I’m getting there. I feel like my legs have gotten better and better. My game has improved more and more. I’m getting more and more comfortable with the bubble. But as far as the mental side of it, I’m not there personally. I don’t think that our team is there, personally. But we will be.”

The Lakers survived the night by hitting on 54 percent of their shots from the field. It didn’t hurt to have the trio of James (29 points), Davis (27 points), and Kuzma (25 points) all clicking offensively. Kuzma scored 16 of his 25 points in the second half of the ballgame, including dropping his monster 25-foot heave to win the game.

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Kyle Kuzma (0) going up for the short jumper over the outstretched hands of Danilo Gallinari (8). December 28, 2018 Los Angeles, CA
Los Angeles Clippers vs Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on December 28, 2018. (Photo by Jevone Moore)

“Big-time shot, big confidence-booster for Kuz,” said James. “I think the best thing about… I guess the time that we had off, Kuz got an opportunity to get healthy,” said James. “He was hampered with his foot injury, ankle injury throughout a lof of this season, so he was always playing catch up…a lot of stuff to get healthy. He put (in) a lot of work, and his confidence is soaring. He’s playing some good ball, but more importantly, defensively. he’s just been locked in and taking the challenge on any given night. No matter if his opponent or anyone is scoring…it doesn’t matter. He’s taking the challenge and that’s a step in the right direction of his growth.”

The threat of a legitimate third-wheel scoring option is something the Lakers are going to need if they are to go deep into the postseason. Being solely reliant upon on the two-headed monster of James and Davis to shoulder the bulk of the scoring load in the playoff is not something that Vogel would prefer.

“We’re going to need all of our guys,” Vogel said. “But Kyle has that ability to really give length and athleticism and just a hard-playing approach on the defensive end without being able to get hot offensively. We can’t rely on our two big guns to carry the whole load. It’s a team game. He’s (Kuzma) continuing to make the right reads and make the right plays. I think it’s been a big jump in that since the restart in his game from where he was at when we left off. He can be huge for us.”

Davis echoes Vogel’s sentiments about how important the play of Kuzma will be for the team during the postseason.

“He could very key for us,” Davis said. “He’s always been confident. He’s not afraid to take or make big shots as you can see tonight. He wants to guard the best player on the floor. He wants to take the challenges. He’s been great for us all year. He’s getting his rhythm on both ends of the floor and like I said, he’s going to be huge for us, especially in the playoffs.”

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