The Point: Back in the Conference Finals, Lakers Are Feeling Fresh This Time

This is serious now—in a good way. For a franchise that has always been about championships, this is the time you win a series and play for the championship … or you don’t.

The Lakers’ historical dominance of the NBA is reflected foremost in their 31 NBA Finals appearances, 50 percent more than even the Boston Celtics’ 21.

The Lakers play for championships.

And they’re one series away from doing it again, but doing it for the first time in 10 years. So, the feeling is uniquely refreshing, even if the franchise is accustomed to being here.

The NBA’s current final four is, not surprisingly, tinged with some Lakers pedigree. Even though the Denver Nuggets kept the Clippers from indulging the local L.A. affair in the Western Conference Finals, who are the gentlemen with whom the buck stops for the two Eastern Conference Finals teams? Longtime rivals Pat Riley of the Miami Heat and Danny Ainge of the Celtics … who brewed a caffeinated rivalry when Riley coached the Lakers and Ainge played for the Celtics in three classic NBA Finals showdowns in 1984-87.

That said, any Lakers fan who is lingering in memory lane for more than three seconds right now absolutely deserves to be whistled for a violation.

This feels like a new era in Lakers basketball because it is one—with newly minted All-NBA first-team honorees LeBron James and Anthony Davis partnering in their first playoff run together and doing something special.

The home-run acquisitions of James and Davis have the Lakers well positioned here in the late innings of this season to win a championship. Denver coach Michael Malone referred to them earlier this season as two of the top three players in the league—with James being No. 1.

More so than Lakers history, the criss-cross connections for the remaining NBA teams involve James, who was coached by both Miami’s Erik Spoelstra (2010-14) and Denver’s Michael Malone (2005-10) as Mike Brown’s assistant in Cleveland. (Brown also tried to get Malone to come to be his Lakers assistant in 2011.)

James also denied Boston coach Brad Stevens in both the 2017 and ’18 Eastern Conference Finals. James denied his own current Lakers coach, then-Indiana coach Frank Vogel, in the same way in 2013 and ’14.

Both LeBron and the Lakers’ organization are so accustomed to conference finals play that it’s like a seasoned surfer stepping from sand into water. And the Lakers have far more depth of late-playoff experience through their roster than Denver does. Denver stars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are making their conference finals debuts—and the only time Nuggets veteran leader Paul Millsap made it this far since his rookie year was in 2015, when his Atlanta team was promptly swept by James’ Cleveland team.

As an organization, the Nuggets have reached the conference finals only three times before (losing to the Lakers the past two times in 2009 and 1985) and never made the NBA Finals.

However, it’s worthwhile to note what Vogel clarifies on that front, trying to make sure these Lakers appreciate how golden the opportunity is to gaze upon that Larry O’Brien Trophy.

“While we have players who have been there,” Vogel said, “we have not been there as a group.”

LA Lakers

It’s hard for the Lakers to be too jaded about any of this anyway when two of their prominent current players are Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso, whose 2017 Lakers debuts were part of the organization’s remodel.

After James half-jokingly welcomed the two of them when the Lakers mathematically qualified for the playoffs earlier this season, Kuzma and Caruso are rightfully a bit wide-eyed about being a step from the championship series.

Kuzma recalls a conversation last season with then-teammate Tyson Chandler, who shared: “I've played in the league 18 years, and I’ve only been to the (NBA) Finals once.”

Kuzma says now: “It’s always stuck with me. Live in the moment.”

The Lakers, by the way, just denied Chandler—a reserve on Houston’s roster—another conference finals this season. Instead, here is Kuzma—whom Chandler admired from the beginning for having a thirst for knowledge ranging from how to play winning defense to what kind of vitamins to take.

That intangible determination that Kuzma and Caruso have displayed as young professionals is one reason Lakers management so coveted them and kept them around. One should not forget how Caruso passed up attending his sister’s wedding because he didn’t want to disrupt what the Lakers had going on the NBA’s COVID-controlled campus. We have seen with other eliminated teams how much of a negative that can be in the equation.

Neither Caruso nor Kuzma has looked scared of the moment in the playoffs, combining with veterans Rajon Rondo and Markieff Morris to own games off the bench.

We discussed last week how playoff experience is useful but playoff confidence is powerful. The way Caruso, 26, and Kuzma, 25, are playing is about confidence, not experience.

“I’m not shying away from showing my competitiveness and playing how I know how to play,” Caruso said. “There were spurts of it earlier in the year.”

Said Kuzma: “I’m just out there, being confident, playing my role, doing whatever it takes to win.”

Caruso described his improvement in the playoffs as “playing rather than thinking about what I should be doing,” which is exactly the inverse of what most would expect from a playoff newbie.

That does not mean, however, that Caruso fails to appreciate the elevated seriousness of playoff basketball he has experienced, with the feeling set to ratchet up another level next in the Western Conference Finals.

“Six minutes in the playoffs is more than six minutes in a regular-season game, just from intensity and schemes and having to play every possession like it’s the last one, like it’s the end of the world,” Caruso said, referencing the additional playing time he has gotten.

It’s all relative, of course. There was a time in life when Kuzma and Caruso were treating the NBA Summer League championship game as their all-in moment at the poker table—and they emerged victorious from that, too.

Consider the context for those Las Vegas days and nights in 2017: Brandon Ingram got hurt in the first game and never played again that summer. Josh Hart didn’t play in the last six games. Lonzo Ball was hurt and missed the title game.

Yet Kuzma scored 30 points to be named championship game MVP. Caruso added 15 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. The victory gave the Lakers’ organization some real success on the court to celebrate at a time when it really needed it.

Three years later, Kuzma and Caruso are close to reminding the Lakers’ organization what real success on the court is.

Kyle Kuzma

The day-to-day establishment and improvement of Kuzma and Caruso in recent years should teach a lesson about how building a championship-caliber team is about balancing future big goals with the real-time smaller successes … until you end up achieving the future big goals.

You never know how the dominoes might fall so that one good decision leads to another good one, or how several good decisions might add up to one LeBron commitment or pile up for one A.D. trade.

What the Lakers found and cultivated in guys such as Ingram, Hart and Ball allowed them to swing for the fences with Davis, and now the Lakers have two All-NBA first-teamers for the first time since Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in 2004.

Did anyone check the NBA All-Rookie Team voting results that were just released Tuesday? I think not. Those days have passed.

Nevertheless, this is a proper time to acknowledge how so many good pitches or nice catches at key times occurred along the way for the Lakers to build a conference finalist—along with the home runs that were the James signing and Davis trade.

Having Kuzma and Caruso—plus upstart rookie Talan Horton-Tucker earning minutes—makes it impossible to forget the small steps the Lakers had to take to climb back to conference-final status. Kuzma, Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were Lakers back in 2017. Just months before their arrivals, Rob Pelinka was hired as general manager.

They were and they remain part of the solution, and Friday marks conference-finals debuts for them all.

“Not many people have the opportunity to get this far in the playoffs,” Kuzma said. “You can’t take it for granted.”

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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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