Alex Caruso keeps a tally of the number of days he's played with the Lakers in his notes folder on his phone. There's an expiration date on his time in the NBA. On a two-way contract, he can play 45 days with the Lakers and must spend the rest of his time with the South Bay Lakers, the team's development-league affiliate.
With the Lakers short on guards, he's been getting plenty of opportunity lately and is using it to make his case that he should stick around.
"I only get 45 days so I've got to make the most of them," Caruso said. "Getting opportunities like this is what guys in my position live for. I'm just glad I'm starting to play a little loose, a little free and playing with the energy I normally play with."
On Sunday afternoon, the Lakers beat the New York Knicks 127-107 with a dominant second half outside of the first few minutes of the third quarter, despite playing without both of their starting guards. Jordan Clarkson notched his second consecutive productive offensive game, scoring 29 points with 10 assists. Julius Randle also contributed a double-double, scoring 27 points with 12 rebounds. The win allowed the Lakers to improve to 17-29.
Caruso scored a career-high nine points with eight assists and four rebounds Sunday afternoon. He was part of a unit Lakers coach Luke Walton trusted in critical minutes during the game.
"I'm super happy we have him and I hope we keep him," Larry Nance Jr. said. "He may not look the part, but that is an NBA player. There's no doubt in my mind. It doesn't shock us. We've seen it in practice; we've seen it in training camp. Seeing it in the game is no surprise."
The Lakers had a four-point lead at halftime, but Walton didn't like the way they were playing defense. His message during the break was entirely about defense.
It didn't take at first. The Knicks hit five threes in the first half of the third quarter and took a six-point lead over the Lakers. During that run, Walton removed his entire starting lineup and replaced it with Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Corey Brewer, Nance and Clarkson.
"During our home winning streak, we have been really, really good defensively," Walton said. " … I was searching out a group that was willing to play that type of defense. … We got a group in there that was committed to that end of the floor. And then we just stuck with them because they were playing hard and playing the right way."
Defense is part of what Walton likes about Caruso. It's also what Clarkson remembers about facing Caruso when the two of them were in college. Caruso played at Texas A&M while Clarkson played at Missouri.
"I used to hate playing against AC in college," Clarkson said. "One of them pesky dudes getting in you defensively. Get people involved. It's good we got him on the squad."
Said Caruso: "He's gotten his shot a lot better now than it was back then, so we used to try and force him into some tough twos and threes, but me and JC have had a couple battles back in the A&M/Missouri days."
Walton has spoken to Caruso about becoming a better shooter himself, but appreciates the size he brings to the game.
"He is a very intelligent player, he's tough, he competes on the defensive end and he has done a nice job of playing with [Clarkson] because it allows JC to get off ball a little bit," Walton said. "Or we are playing JC long stretches of minutes and a lot of teams will blitz JC all over the court and they will try to pick him up full and he has done a really nice job of giving us some mix. And we have been a really big fan of his, at least I have since I first met him in summer league."
With starting point guard Lonzo Ball out for the foreseeable future, Caruso's opportunity has increased. The Lakers are starting Tyler Ennis, and Walton doesn't expect that to change, but he played Caruso for 30 minutes on Sunday.
"In the last two games, I think he has really changed his mind-set," Walton said. "And aggression to him doesn't mean 'I am going to score all the time.' It just means he is getting in the paint and making the right play and defensively maybe taking a couple more risks but [Caruso and Clarkson] have been a really nice combo together."