Alex Caruso rose from the bench, and the Staples Center crowd rumbled. A man sitting about 10 rows back from the court bowed as the fan favorite checked in for the first time Sunday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Mostly overshadowed by a 50-point performance from Anthony Davis and a 32-point, 13-assist game from LeBron James, Caruso still earned some attention in the Lakers’ 142-125 win with a season-high 16 points while filling an increased role because of point guard Rajon Rondo’s nagging hamstring injury.
With Rondo out and James dealing with four fouls in the first half Sunday, the Lakers (21-3) were without their “two quarterbacks,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. But Caruso called an audible for himself.
“The role I’m being asked to play, I think I’m playing it really well,” said the 6-foot-5 Caruso, who added four assists and two steals and had no turnovers Sunday. “I think I can continue to do that. Tonight was the role where I said I think I’m capable of, but on this team, I don’t need to do that every night.”
Caruso said with Rondo out, he needed to be more aggressive on offense. Vogel praised his smart decisions in the paint while the unassuming third-year guard and former Texas A&M standout, 25, continues to emerge from a three-point shooting slump. He made two of three three-point attempts Sunday after shooting 27% from long range in October and November.
“He’s just playing with a lot of confidence on that end,” Vogel said.
While another injury to guard Avery Bradley robbed the team of one of its most valued defenders, it has also helped boost the confidence of another backup guard. With Bradley sidelined with a hairline fracture in his leg, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope increased his minutes per game from 19.6 before Bradley’s injury to 27.8 before Sunday’s game. During 28 minutes Sunday, he had nine points, five assists and two rebounds.
The seventh-year guard became a target of fan frustration with his slow start this season, but he has blossomed during Bradley’s absence. He has averaged 10.2 points during the 13 games since Bradley’s diagnosis, a jump from 5.3 points in the first 11 games.
“This league is built off of confidence,” Bradley said, “and once [Caldwell-Pope] was inserted into the starting lineup and able to get a rhythm and some confidence, he’s been playing great for our team.”
If Bradley’s recovery goes as planned, he will return to the court during the team’s upcoming five-game road trip, which begins Wednesday at Orlando. Vogel said Sunday that the 10th-year guard has practiced in three-on-three and four-on-four situations.
The Lakers are still hurting without Bradley, especially on the defensive end. Vogel said he criticized his players for giving up 125 points to the Timberwolves on Sunday, but he acknowledged it was possible no one listened after the Lakers still won by 17 and had a season high in points.
With what he called the most competitive and talented roster he has coached from a defensive standpoint, Vogel believes defensive production is a “minimum requirement” to earn playing time. That is why he so readily turned to Caldwell-Pope and Caruso in the face of recent injuries.
“KCP and Alex have separated themselves from the group in that regard,” Vogel said. “We got a lot of two-way players on our team. But those two guys in particular have excelled on the defensive end with their speed, length and athleticism.”