Sometimes they chanted “Kuuuz!” When he went to the free-throw line they tried “M-V-P!”
There was little for the Lakers to celebrate during their 121-104 Christmas Day loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. But, as he often is, Kuzma was among the team’s bright spots. He led all scorers with 31 points, the most by a Lakers rookie on Christmas. It was also the highest-scoring Christmas game by any rookie since LeBron James scored 34 in 2003.
Only three rookies have scored more points on Christmas since the 1976-77 season than Kuzma: James, Bill Cartwright (33 in 1979) and Patrick Ewing (32 in 1985).
“I know this about Kuzma: I know what he’s about, how he likes to compete,” coach Luke Walton said. “For a rookie to continue to play at the level that he’s playing at against very good players, good teams, playing big minutes is impressive.”
The Lakers have lost six of their past seven games, and for this one their list of ailments was too long.
Their other rookie star, Lonzo Ball, sat on the bench in his suit jacket, wearing green shoes with images of the Grinch.
Brandon Ingram was out and starting center Brook Lopez wore a boot on his right foot, still a couple weeks from even thinking about returning. Not a single Lakers player who started the season opener was in their starting lineup on Christmas Day, usually the day when the NBA showcases its best games.
On Monday night the Lakers just sought to get through it.
Walton started Jordan Clarkson, a more natural shooting guard, for the first time this season in place of Ball and Josh Hart in place of Ingram, who was out with injuries in his quadriceps muscles.
The Lakers trailed by nine after the first quarter but by only one at halftime. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit back-to-back three-pointers to get the Lakers within two and then Kuzma’s three gave the Lakers their first lead in the final minute of the second quarter.
The Lakers even had a chance late in the game. They led by one early in the fourth quarter, then Minnesota ripped off a 13-0 run with the help of a couple of turnovers. Later the Lakers cut a 14-point lead to six, but Minnesota pulled away behind 58.3% shooting. Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson scored 23 points each, and Karl-Anthony Towns added 21 with 10 rebounds.
“We had a couple turnovers, missed a lot of free throws,” Kuzma said of the Lakers’ 14-of-20 shooting from the line. “Couldn’t really recover when those guys went iso. They did a good job of picking out weaknesses in our defense.”
Clarkson, who often sparks the Lakers off the bench, wasn’t nearly effective in an increased role: He took 24 shots but made just eight, for 17 points. Hart had 12 points on five-for-13 shooting.
After the game, Walton didn’t immediately know quite what to make of it. Having had to put together lineups like parts on a Mr. Potato Head doll, there were groups of guys playing together who hadn’t done that much at all. He said he needed to check the film before drawing any conclusions.
At his locker during his postgame interview, Kuzma was told just how impressive his performance was; that rookies usually don’t get this chance on Christmas, and when they do they rarely perform like he did.
Did that mean anything to him?
“No,” Kuzma said. “Not really.”
It meant nothing?
“Of course it’s cool,” Kuzma said. “But at the same time I expect to do all this. Work hard so I should be doing all this. It’s not a surprising type feel. But it’s definitely cool to reach those milestones.”