Alex Caruso & LeBron James
(Bart Young/Getty Images)

Best in the West: Lakers Head Victorious into the Break

by Rodrigo Azurmendi
Staff Writer

That was a tribute to the basketball gods.

Hours before stepping into a much-needed break from action, the Lakers and Nuggets played their hearts out in the Colorado altitude, with L.A. eeking out a thrilling 120-116 overtime victory.

The purple and gold’s effort was inspired and inspiring, with stars and reserves alike playing up to the challenge that represented facing the next best team in the Western Conference.

Yes, it may have started with LeBron James setting the tone in the locker room before the game and ended with Anthony Davis shutting it down in OT, but what happened in between had the fingerprints of many other unsung heroes.

“You could just tell he was really, really locked in,” said coach Frank Vogel of James's demeanor earlier in the evening. “This was not a ‘one foot out the door towards the break type of game’. He was going to have a playoff mindset to it and he showed that all throughout the game. And AD does it with his game. He does it with great determination. Again, the last game before the break a lot of times, especially on the road in a tough environment, guys will try and compete, but sometimes it’s not the best effort, but those two guys were special tonight.”

King James notched his 12th triple-double of the season with a monstrous 32-point, 14-assist, 12-rebound line that includes this thunderous one-handed dunk that earned the Lakers a delay-of-game warning due to too many on the bench losing their collective minds:

Meanwhile, AD was steadily phenomenal all night but made sure to save some magic for home stretch.

Davis led the Lakers with 33 points and 10 boards, including some otherworldly defense on Nikola Jokic, a clutch free throw and a pair of daggers from beyond the arc in the biggest of moments.

This one was as cold blooded as they come:

The Lakers, however, don’t go into the All-Star break victorious without first being rescued in the second quarter by Dwight Howard and Alex Caruso.

Their effort and energy picked up L.A. when the Nuggets had opened up a 13-point lead, allowing the Lakers to go into the half up by six.

What happened after intermission was one of the most exciting halves of basketball in the NBA this season. Vogel, though, went back to both of them to close it out in regulation.

Howard finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Caruso, meanwhile, sat the whole third quarter but still finished with a stat line of 10 points, six boards, and four assists that doesn’t quite reflect his impact.

He was, however, a plus-23 in 22 minutes.

“Right now he’s my secret weapon,” Vogel said while flashing a smile. “I break him out when I need him. He’s certainly earned a rotation spot. He’s in the rotation. When we need him to grow into a bigger role, he delivers.”

A late Kentavious Caldwell-Pope steal sealed the game after a textbook closeout from Caruso on Jokic. The Georgia-native also had a trio of makes from downtown, on top of the still-on-fire Avery Bradley’s pair. Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma took a backseat Wednesday night, but they’ve been equally essential to these 41 wins and the best record in the West.

They all have the coaching staff also working overtime (pun intended).

“KCP plays well, so all of the sudden it’s like ‘where do we find him extra minutes’, then Avery starts making shots, Rondo was great the other night,” Vogel said. “It’s a different guy every night. It’s a testament to our culture of guys pushing each other, pulling for each other, and making my job hard.”

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