SECRET TO LAKERS’ SUCCESS: BEING THEIR OWN MOTORS
However this season winds up, one of the fondest memories is already cemented: how the relationship between Lakers fans and Alex Caruso has blossomed into an unabashed love affair.
The All-Star votes—Caruso was fourth among Western Conference guards, just ahead of recent NBA MVP winners Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry—reflect the mania, even if Caruso is a little sheepish about it. Popularity contests might not be the best way to judge many things, but everyone should be able to agree that it’s awfully impressive to be winning a popularity contest while not trying very hard to be popular.
Along those same lines, the unassuming Caruso has become such a lightning rod for Lakers support because of the earnest, competitive way he plays the game. Caruso is now this vessel for Lakers energy not because he’s asking for it or trying to collect it, but rather because he plays with his own honest, competitive energy—and fans recognize that.
He legit brings it, so Lakers fans thrilled with this season have shown him inordinate love in return. A perfect storm of energy has resulted.
Asked about how synced he seems with Lakers fans at Staples Center this season, Caruso said: “I am my own motor. I give myself my own energy. But hopefully that [energy from the fans] translates to some energy for my teammates if they’re in are in a rut or not feeling it. Hopefully that can bring them energy.”
There’s no doubt about how home fans can rally their team. For the Lakers and their fans at home, Caruso said: “When they give us energy, it makes it so much easier to play.”
But this Lakers crew has proved that it isn’t dependent on outside motivation. At 20-4 on the road after beating Brooklyn, the Lakers have actually been better away from Staples—with a remarkable 14-game road winning streak against West teams since losing on opening night in a Clippers home game at Staples. There is, in fact, a real possibility the Lakers could go undefeated in other Western Conference buildings for the entire season: Feb. 12 game at Denver and March 14 at Utah are the only games among the 10 games remaining in other West buildings that pit the Lakers against opponents anywhere close to .500 or better.
Certainly the Lakers get more than their share of support in road arenas, as seen by the MVP chant for LeBron James on Saturday in Houston … and the MVP chant for Caruso on Wednesday in New York. James referred to the rare power of the Lakers’ fan following out of town as “something you really can’t explain unless you’re involved in it.”
Yet as much spunk as it takes for a fan to wear the road team’s gear into an arena, it takes more resolve for the road team to execute its attack mindset regardless of what, where, when and whom … and win. Time after time this season - including in the victories in Houston, New York and Brooklyn on this current road trip - the Lakers have brought their own energy, quieted the home crowd and opened the door for that small army of their fans to be clearly heard.
News flash: Two other Lakers actually got quite a few more All-Star votes than Caruso. They had quite a few more than almost everyone else, as James and Anthony Davis were with Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo at around six million votes when no one else even had four million.
Even the most devoted Caruso voter would acknowledge that everything with the Lakers starts with James and Davis. That includes the team’s energy.
As the league leader in assists this season—and scoring more unassisted buckets himself than ever in his career—James carries an incomparable responsibility to create energy for the team. His long hit-ahead passes alone are encouraging everyone to run full speed in transition. James obviously does it off the court, too, pouring energy into the team via the wisdom he can offer from his many title runs.
But one of the great revelations for many this season has been Davis’ energy. For those who didn’t see him much in New Orleans, it was expected that he would have crazy skills. Well, he does—except he also plays crazy hard.
Davis is, believe it or not, the Lakers’ leading hustle player. It’s safe to say that because he’s pretty much the leading hustle player in the entire league.
Among players who qualify by playing most of their teams’ games, Davis and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons lead the league at 1.8 loose balls recovered per game. But then Davis has 12.3 contested shots per game to Simmons’ 5.3, way more screen assists (5.3 to 3.2) and twice as many charges drawn (.16 to .07). Simmons is better at deflections (3.8), but Davis is still in the top 20 in the league there (2.9).
It’s laughable to call Davis “scrappy,” because that’d be like raving about your smartphone being a dependable clock. Yet Davis, when he’s not sculpting pieces of art with those skills, is absolutely leading by example on this team with his hustle.
“That’s just the competitor he is; that’s who he is to his core,” Caruso said. “He’s a hooper. That’s how he knows how to play the game.”
Davis is also third in the league in blocked shots, a far more glamorous stat but one that still requires hustle. He’s doing the usual star turns in scoring, ranking first on the team and eighth in the league in points per game. But the unmistakable takeaway from Davis’ season to date is that he brings the Lakers energy in quite subtle means—even though he is expected also to bring it in the most obvious.
When he set a franchise record with 26 free throws (in 27 attempts) in the fourth game of the season and had 20 rebounds that same night, Davis set a tone for how he could dominate a game in a workmanlike fashion just by going hard.
The loss Monday in Boston was certainly linked to Davis’ three free throws, when he acknowledged the team needs more aggression from him. He was far more directed with his energy Wednesday in New York, working toward his favorite spots closer to the rim and putting the Knicks on their heels en route to 13 free throws. The dagger shot in that victory was an ugly but effective one: Davis hustling to follow a fast break and barely nudging the tip-in over the rim.
It started way back in the offseason, really. There was that minicamp in Las Vegas for the players to bond before training camp.
Go away on vacation with some people you don’t know that well, and if you don’t create some of your own energy, it’s not going to be much fun—even in the bright lights and big noises of Vegas.
The unselfishness in Lakers attitudes all around on that trip served as the source of the initial energy, though. It was, as Jared Dudley put it, “half play, half work,” but it was the first domino in the Lakers falling into being their own fully functioning unit. The preseason trip to China was another. It has continued from there, which is why James now can say so casually and generally: “Our chemistry on the court is always great because of how well we get along off the floor.”
That chemistry makes it easier for the Lakers to be active, no doubt. It’s easier to take care of business when it feels more like fun than business. The precursor to that, however, is that it’s more fun when there’s a collective effort to bring energy to a party.
And behind James and Davis, the supporting cast has been going consistently hard. When Dwight Howard gets the steal in a key moment against the Knicks, triggering a transition opportunity that ends with Rajon Rondo’s three-pointer from the right corner, the energy of James pushing the ball up the floor is the other noticeable cog in the machine.
But there was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope making the extra pass to Rondo, and there was Kyle Kuzma running hard to fill the left corner and draw the defense to that side of the court.
About Kuzma, Lakers coach Frank Vogel had said before the game: “He plays extremely hard on both ends of the floor. That type of energy impacts the group.” Meanwhile, Caldwell-Pope went so hard for the first five minutes of that fourth quarter that he was huffing and puffing—a literal manifestation of Vogel’s preseason mantra for the Lakers to “play to exhaustion.”
When Davis didn’t play last week in the loss to Orlando, him not being available for his usual production was a big part of it—but so was Howard having to play heavier minutes and being less effective in the fourth quarter. The way Vogel is utilizing the Lakers’ depth is a responsible way to keep the overall energy high: No one but Davis and James is averaging 26 minutes.
Therefore, the other guys can go all-out whenever they’re on the floor.
As sensible as it is to look up at the Lakers’ success this season and salute their stars and size, it has been more than those traditional NBA fossil fuels getting work done. The team has provided consistent, self-sustainable energy in all sorts of ways. And by now, there’s good reason to believe the power is renewable.
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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